Now (not last week) is the time to change Watertown’s assessment policy

The only thing that prevented last week’s assessment hearing for Watertown property owners impacted by recent street construction projects from being a complete disaster is that in the end, the city council’s decision was the right one anyway.

The council ultimately decided not to change its policy that requires property owners to pay 80 percent of the costs associated with street projects in front of their homes, while the city pays the other 20 percent. In fairness to those who have already paid assessments as part of the 80/20 split that has been in place since 1973 — and especially in fairness to those who are currently making payments based on that policy — it didn’t seem like an appropriate time to make a switch — at least not at that particular moment.

That being said, the fact the council made the proper decision doesn’t excuse the way that decision was ultimately reached. An apparent series of colossal miscommunications gave most of the people in attendance at the public hearing the impression that their 80 percent share of the costs was not yet set in stone, and that Tuesday’s meeting was the proper time to voice their concerns in an attempt to have that number reduced.

Several members of the council also stated they were under the impression that Tuesday’s meeting would be the appropriate time to discuss and possibly make changes to the policy, and I don’t blame them. It’s the same impression I got after the first hearing in March, which is when the city council first gave approval to move ahead with the projects. The agenda from that meeting, still posted on the city’s Web site, states that “it is important to note that the public comment taken at this meeting should be related to the purpose and need for the project. A future public hearing will be held for comment specifically on assessment levels,” a point that was reiterated several times during the meeting.

Even with that understanding, however, the whole process seemed backward from the start. It was also clearly explained at that hearing in March that the next steps — prior to last week’s assessment hearing — would be to solicit bids, award the project to a contractor, and finalize a financing mechanism for the project. When the council finalized its bonding back in July, it did so based on the assumption the city would pay 20 percent of the costs, and in doing so, city administrator Luke Fischer says the council was affirming the 80/20 split.

Common sense probably should have prevailed at that point, because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to finance a project before you decide who is going to pay for it, and how much. That a public hearing would be scheduled for a time after financing is finalized gives the impression that the hearing was intended merely as a legal formality, with no intent to take comments into consideration or actually reconsider any policies.

It was evident on Tuesday, though, that at least several councilors truly did want to discuss possible changes. When it became clear that it would be very difficult to make any changes to the level of assessments for various legal reasons, it made many people — including councilor Michael Walters — wonder aloud what the point of the hearing was in the first place. While I don’t believe there was any intent to mislead, the communication could and certainly should be better next time around. Nevertheless, the seemingly unfair nature of the process was lessened at least a bit by the idea that a change to the assessment policy should probably never be made during a street construction year, anyway.

Walters was the council member showing the most support for lowering the percentage that homeowners pay, and much as he did in March, he noted that his phone calls to city administrators all over the metro area revealed that none of the cities he contacted ask residents to shoulder as much of the burden as Watertown does.

Walters pointed out that property owners pay nothing in Waconia, 25 percent in Chaska, 30 percent in Mayer, 40 percent in Chanhassen, and 50 percent in Norwood Young America and Victoria. He noted that Hopkins (70 percent, but with a maximum cap) and Edina (100 percent) are the only cities he could find that are close to Watertown’s ratio.

In the end, Walters was the only councilor that voted against the decision to assess property owners 80 percent of this costs this year. His contention was that 80 percent is simply too much to ask residents to pay, and he’s completely right. It just seemed like there would be a better time to make the change, and that time is right now — after the most recent projects have been assessed.

Granted, that would seem unfair to this year’s impacted property owners, but there never will be a completely fair time to change the policy. There will always be a group that was the last one to pay 80 percent. But there is a time, however, that could be viewed as the “least unfair,” and that time is now.

The most recent batch of streets to be reconstructed were the last ones to be brought up to current city standards, and Fischer said there are currently no new projects immediately in the works. The city will have to re-evaluate its pavement inventory to determine when and where the next projects should occur.

The one thing the council absolutely should never do is change the policy in response to one particular project. By proactively changing the policy now, when there are no specific projects planned, nobody knows who will be the first group of residents to benefit, and the city council won’t be acting in response to the demands of any one group of homeowners over any other from the last 40 years. By addressing the problem now, the council would be simply reacting to a concerning policy, not favoring any particular group of residents over another.

Theoretically, no matter the ratio, things should actually come out fairly equally for residents over several decades, assuming every street is fixed at some point. If the city decides to take on a larger percentage of the costs in the future, the city is not going to hold a bake sale or go door-to-door selling frozen pizzas to make up the difference. It will simply be added to the general levy. Residents would pay less for the projects in front of their own homes, but pay more for projects elsewhere in the city that they currently pay almost nothing for.

Just because the current policy is perfectly fair, however, doesn’t make it right, and especially not for Watertown. First of all, not all residents plan to live in their homes for 30 years while the burden of paying for street projects “evens out.” Secondly, residents can come to expect and budget for what likely wouldn’t be more than minimal tax increases each year if the policy were changed to say, 50/50, but a sudden $7,000 assessment — which is the average for this year’s projects — can come as a shocking surprise that most people have not budgeted for and cannot afford.

— Matt Bunke is the Community Editor for the Carver County News.