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Special assessment complaints have 'dropped dramatically' in Fargo

Residents paying smaller share, communication upgrade are cited as reasons.

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A major reconstruction project is planned next year on a 10-block stretch of 32nd Avenue South, seen here Wednesday, June 16, 2021. The stretch runs from near Essentia Health hospital, seen at the right, to near the Sanford Southpointe Clinic on 22nd Street. Barry Amundson / The Forum

FARGO — As Fargo departments prepare to finalize the five-year road and utility improvement plan for the city, there's one positive on the financial side for residents.

Homeowners seem to be complaining less about special assessments when road and utility line projects are done in their neighborhoods.

One major reason is that instead of splitting costs for projects between the city and special assessments for property owners ranging from 50/50 and then 70/30 over the past years, the percentage split on most projects is currently averaging 80% for the city's share and about 20% for property owners.

Assistant City Engineer Tom Knakmuhs said it was accomplished by placing a cap on what a homeowner would pay per foot on their front property line through the new infrastructure financing policy.

For paving that would put the limit at about $85 per front foot and for water main replacement at $40 per front foot.

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"The calls have dropped dramatically," Knakmuhs said.

City Commissioner John Strand, who first mentioned it at the last City Commission meeting when the five-year plan was discussed, said he's also noticed the decrease in complaints.

"There's a hugely diminished outcry," he said. "We're going in a good direction."

He said when the split was 50/50 there were "people really upset."

Knakmuhs said another factor in fewer complaints is better communication with residents. For example when they send notices for projects the department lists who is paying what share of a project.

Also they answer questions on the project mailing such as "why a project is needed" and "how to get updates on a project."

Yet another positive step is that in 2019 the city hired a consultant to design projects for 2020, allowing the city engineering department to work on 2021 work and get a year ahead, thus allowing for earlier notices to residents about neighborhood projects so it's not thrown at them.

Engineers, who spend the warmer months monitoring projects and do design work in the winter, are currently working on projects for 2023.

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Mayor Tim Mahoney said they have worked hard to try to reduce special assessments.

In Bismarck, he said they have added a monthly $20 fee for street utility work or about $240 a year to help pay for projects. If someone had just paid their special assessments he doesn't think that method would be fair.

The mayor is hoping the state's Prairie Dog fund meant to help local governments pay for infrastructure will be fully funded in 2023. With the city expecting to get about $20 million a year that could also help keep special assessments down, he said.

There are still other projects in Fargo where the split can be closer to 50/50. Those are for construction on arterial or main roads.

For example, when next year's rebuilding of busy 32nd Avenue South begins, the cost is spread over a larger area affecting property blocks away from the project. Although the rate is lower for those farther away from the avenue, more special assessments are collected overall to help fund the project.

When asked if the city could ever end special assessments, Mahoney simply said "no." He said the funds are needed to help pay for projects.

In all, the city is planning to spend about $90.5 million on infrastructure projects next year in what the city calls the Capital Improvement Plan. That amount matches those in most of the past five years.

This figure includes costs for a variety of city projects, including flood control, pavement preservation, financing for new developments that are paid back, sidewalks and traffic and street lights.

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The City Commission is expected to give its final approval to the plan at its next meeting on Dec. 13.,

Some of the other highlights of the plan are:

  • The city has 1,400 lane miles of road, which Knakmuhs said would be the equivalent of crossing the state on Interstate 94 four times. A lane mile is half of a two way street, but the city has many wider three- and four-lane roads which add to the total miles. In the past 15 years, the lane miles have increased 40%.
  • The main project that will cause traffic concerns next year is the rebuilding of 32nd Avenue from 32nd Street near I-29 to 22nd Street. The $15 million project is the only federal aid project slated for next year. Federal aid projects are reserved for main roads and bridges in the city.
  • Another major project in 2022 is construction of a mile of 45th Street south of 52nd Avenue as well as extending 64th Avenue and completion of the I-29 overpass for $15.6 million. The streets are needed in that developing area of the southwest part of the city where the new countywide Career Workforce Academy and the Fargo Indoor Sports Complex are going to be built.
  • With the new census for the Fargo-Moorhead metro putting it past 200,000 population the federal aid system will change, which Knakmuhs said is a "pretty big deal." Instead of the North Dakota Department of Transportation approving federal aid money it will come directly to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (called Metro COG) here. Knakmuhs said local cities will have more control over projects and potentially may result in more federal aid, too.
  • Other road reconstruction projects are planned next year, but on less traveled roads. The major project in north Fargo is Seventh Avenue North from Second Street North to Elm Street and Oak Street from Eighth Avenue to the Burlington Northern tracks at an estimated cost of $2.8 million.
  • In downtown, the major project will be Third Avenue North from Seventh Street to 10th Street and Seventh Street from Second Avenue to Fourth Avenue at an estimated cost of $2.1 million.
  • In south Fargo, the main reconstruction project is 21st Street from 9th Avenue to 13th Avenue South at an estimated cost of $1.7 million.
  • The plan notes that the city has 1,500 miles of utility lines and that water main breaks over the years have decreased significantly as new plastic pipes are replacing older concrete, clay and cast iron pipes. Knakmuhs said in the 1980s there were about 300 breaks a year and that number has dropped steadily to about 40 a year. Similar to the roadways, the number of utility lines are up about 41% in the past 15 years. The city does about three water main replacement projects a year, but Knakmuhs would like to see that increase to five.
  • Flood control work is winding down to keep the city safe to 37 feet which would prevent any flooding after the diversion is completed. Storm lift stations are still needed, though, and about $21 million in projects are planned next year, including dike work in the Woodcrest area.
  • A survey should be available early next year measuring the condition of all city roads, a job done every four years. A company is hired for the job by driving each city street with sensors with data fed into a computer to provide a score for each road. Currently, Knakmuhs said the latest report has about 80% of roads in good condition, with the concrete roads topping the scale at 88%. Asphalt roads are at 77% with composite roads of concrete and asphalt at 54%.
  • The engineering department also works on concrete rehabilitation projects to prolong the life of roadways. Next year, that work is planned to continue on 13th Avenue from 28th Street to 38th Street near I-29. One other major rehabilitation project is on neighborhood streets in the area south of West Acres mall that are in poor condition.
  • A railroad quiet zone to prevent train horns from sounding in the northwest downtown area by adding extra safety measures is planned for Seventh Avenue North and 16th Street North at a cost of $1 million.

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Here's a view looking south along I-29 of the build-up that will settle over the winter months and lead to construction starting next spring of the Interstate 29 overpass on 64th Avenue South. The build-up is about 20 feet deep with straw covering the clay and dirt for protection. Contributed / City of Fargo

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