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'Yes' vote for Wyoming roads won't add to taxes

'Yes' vote for Wyoming roads won't add to taxes

BY MICHELLE MIRON
Editor, Forest Lake Lowdown

Layers of patches reveal years of neglect.Layers of patches reveal years of neglect.WYOMING — Wyoming is attempting once again to address needed street replacements by asking voters for permission to use an already established street fund to pay of $3.03 million in general obligation bonds.

In spite of confusing wording on the ballot, voting “yes” at the polls Nov. 4 will not mean another tax increase for Wyoming residents.  As of 2012 residents are already being taxed $500,000 annually for such projects; voting yes will simply allow the city to use that money to pay of $3.03 million in bonds the city wishes to issue for street improvements and other projects.

The city already has the power to use the street fund without voter approval, according to Mayor Eric Peterson. But because it could not come to a unanimous decision to do so (the vote was 4-1, Councilwoman Linda Nanko-Yeager opposed) the question is going to the polls.

Voting yes would effectively fund needed street replacement throughout the city — and related debt service — without further assessing property owners unless the replacement includes additional improvements like curb and gutter or sidewalks.

If residents vote down the proposal, Peterson said the city will issue the bonds anyway and move forward with street replacement, but assess home and business owners for a share of improvements adjacent to their properties. If that happens, Peterson said the city may assess by parcel instead of street frontage at a cost of about $1,900 per parcel, or a minimum 20 percent of the total improvement cost.

He cautioned the assessment scenario has the potential to turn “ugly” as the improvements progress from easier areas with a natural sand base, more property owners and smaller lot sizes to more challenging construction areas with larger lots and fewer homes. In those areas, cost-per owner would be higher.

Assessments could also prove problematic if contested by residents, he noted, since the city may be required to prove the improvements will increase given property values by at least the assessment amount.

“That can sometimes be difficult, depending on the area, and especially during a time when property values are decreasing,” he said.

“The way this vote goes will most likely determine how street replacements are funded in the future. If this referendum succeeds and no assessments are issued, any attempt at assessing future projects would be met with great resistance in the next neighborhoods selected for replacement. On the flip side, if this referendum fails, any attempt to replace future streets without assessments would be met with the same resistance from the property owners already being assessed. It will set precedent.”

A similar referendum request in August, voted down by 60 percent of voters (549-362), sought approval to use the street replacement account to pay of a proposed $2.78 million in bonds. Peterson said he believes many voters misunderstood the question and thought checking “yes” would again raise their taxes.

“The day atfer the referendum, the city received numerous phone calls from people who realized that they voted wrong,” he noted. “Timing was bad ... it being an off election year and an unusual date, August. The state-mandated verbiage … combined with a last-minute mailing from some opposition caused great confusion.”

Either way, turning down the question this summer caused a year-long delay in some 5.5 miles of street replacements that Peterson said cost the city an estimated $200,000 because the economy has since improved and construction costs have risen.

He said streets throughout older portions of the city are in dire need of replacement.

“Most were paved in the 1970s and have never been replaced,” he noted. “Borings done indicate many areas only have an inch and a quarter of asphalt.”

Especially deficient areas, he said, include a neighborhood west of I-35 built on swampy land; downtown and the blocks east; the Railroad Boulevard area to the northeast of downtown; neighborhoods just south of County Rd. 22 back to 261st Street and east to Glen Oak Drive; and the neighborhood on the west side of the freeway from 264th through 261st streets.

Because the city didn't establish a street replacement fund until 2012, he said the city has lately been patching potholes at a rate of about 10 tons of asphalt a week.

The city has another fund established for routine repairs like sealcoating and pothole
repair, which is different from street replacement.

“Maintaining substandard pavementsis disproportionately expensive,” he observed.

Peterson said residents upset that the city didn't start to fund street replacements earlier have a legitimate gripe. “Quite frankly, this probably should have been started 25 years ago,” he said.

Ways other area cities have funded street improvements include placing the entire burden on property owners; adjusting the levy; and using alternate funding sources such as special taxes or franchise fees, he said. Individual assessments elsewhere have ranged from 20 percent to 100 percent.

Peterson said Wyoming's bond question Nov. 4 is based on a program implemented in Shoreview since 1984.

“It's an ongoing program that will never end,” he said. “For 30 years Shoreview has replaced existing streets without assessing homeowners. City Administrator Terry Schwerm shared with me that in all the years since Shoreview implemented its street replacement program, no council member has ever voted against bonding for a street replacement project. They all know it works.”

Peterson said state law requires wording of the Nov. 4 ballot question, which reads as follows even though a tax increase is not applicable under Wyoming's circumstances:  “By voting ‘Yes’ on this ballot question, you are voting for a property tax increase.”