Fargo couple gets relief from sky-high 'specials' but still plans to sell house

FARGO-A couple that went public with their protest of steep special assessments have received some financial relief from city officials, but warn something broader needs to be done to make living here more affordable.Terry and Rhonda King once fa...
Terry King stands last week in front of his home at 3019 64th Ave. S., Fargo. He and his wife Rhonda have tried to sell the home but were unable to because of its high special assessments. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO-A couple that went public with their protest of steep special assessments have received some financial relief from city officials, but warn something broader needs to be done to make living here more affordable.

Terry and Rhonda King once faced nearly $400,000 in "specials" on their 25-year-old home and property at 3019 64th Ave. S. before selling part of the land to reduce the burden.

Still, even after the land sale and by the summer of 2017, the number was $107,000-an amount that would still force them into bankruptcy or foreclosure, they said.

The Kings wrote about their plight in a letter to the editor published in The Forum in Oct. 2017, after saying they were dissatisfied with prior meetings with city leaders.

Their story was picked up by local talk radio and news media outlets, leading to a meeting between the Kings, Mayor Tim Mahoney and other city officials days later.

Searching for some remedy, Mahoney said it was determined the Kings were never compensated for right-of-way to 64th Avenue South when they sold a portion of their land.

The city offered to purchase the easement, as the gravel road south of the King home is a designated arterial roadway.

"This couple was caught. They never really had done development before," Mahoney said.

Not a city 'buydown'

The agreed-upon solution brought the couple's special assessment bill down to just over $50,000. The Kings say another $20,000-plus is pending.

"It's still not low and it's still not great, but it's a lot better than it was," Terry King said.

Dan Eberhardt, the city's special assessments coordinator, said it should be made clear this was not a special assessment "buydown" by the city.

"This was a purchase of a right-of-way that they chose to buy down their specials with," Eberhardt said.

Special assessments are levied on properties that stand to gain from certain infrastructure projects, based on how much they might benefit. It has for years and years been a controversial way of taxing in Fargo and throughout North Dakota.

The mayor said staff will look at cases individually if homeowners think something's not right.

"I don't want people to have to move out of their homes because of specials and so it's that balance of what can you do," Mahoney said.

Nearly $400,000 in specials

The Kings have lived in their tan split-level home for 21 years; drawn to the area because of its quiet, rural landscape. It's now a little over a mile northwest of Davies High School.

Terry King, a quality control engineer at Case IH Tractor, said they assumed the city would grow in their direction, but knew nothing about special assessments that would come with it.

They learned in a hurry starting in 2010, when they were assessed $65,000 for the paving of nearby 25th Street along with another road, sewer and drain work.

They and other homeowners who protested were allowed to defer payment for 10 years, he said.

But more projects were coming down the pike.

As high-end homes began popping up nearby, construction began on 31st Street to link 64th Avenue and 52nd Avenue South.

That project caused the specials on the Kings' home and six-acre property to balloon to $390,000, they said, before they sold off four acres.

'It just doesn't seem fair'

The couple in their 60s, nearing retirement, told the city something needed to be worked out.

"If we don't, you're going to be fighting with the bank for my house because I can't afford it," King said at the time.

Rhonda King said she didn't feel like they were treated with compassion or concern.

"We felt like a number and just a source of money for them," she said, referring to city leaders.

The couple tried to sell their home several times but potential buyers were always scared off by the high special assessments.

Now that the number is lower, they're more optimistic and plan to put it on the market again.

Rhonda King thinks the city should get rid of or minimize special assessments by building them into home construction costs, or capping the amounts.

They're both grateful for the city's help, but don't think it should have required the effort it did.

"I'm still not sure that the overall system is right. It just doesn't seem fair in a lot of ways to not just me but other people," Terry King said.