FARGO — City commissioners at a hearing on special assessments didn't hear many comments from the 50 residents at the Fargodome on Tuesday, June 18, but did indicate they will do something to try to reduce costs to property owners.
City Commissioner and Special Assessment Task Force Chairman Tony Grindberg asked how many attendees were in favor of continuing the tax for infrastructure projects in the city. Only two people raised their hands. Everyone raised their hands when asked if they were paying "specials" currently.
What may make the City Commission's task easier when they make a final decision in the next few months on whether any changes will be made is the North Dakota Legislature's approval of a "Prairie Dog" fund in the past session to share oil tax revenue for infrastructure with the eastern part of the state.
It could provide about $13 million to the city for projects, although Grindberg said it apparently won't climb much higher than that as he had new information that the Legislature capped the $230 million fund, so it really wouldn't rise when oil prices are up.
Only four residents spoke at the hearing, although residents can submit comments online at the city's website at www.fargond.gov/specials or by mail or attend another pubic hearing planned for this Thursday night, June 20, at 5:30 p.m. in the Oak Room at Fargo Cass Public Health at 1240 25th St. S.
One resident who did speak up — George Stallman — predicts city officials won't do anything to reduce or end the "specials." He said he thought the task force that has been looking into the issue since last August and city leaders only did it to "cool off" taxpayers who have become "heated" over the issue.
He talked about starting a ballot issue to end special assessments, suggesting property taxes should probably be the option to pay for infrastructure work.
However, task force spokesman John Cosgriff, a former city commissioner, said infrastructure projects are getting "wildly expensive" and there needs to be a way to pay for them.
He said the "consensus" of the task force was to continue special assessments in some way, but also said the Prairie Dog funds could be "valuable" in making reductions.
One thing Cosgriff and others didn't want to see was reducing the amount of repairs or reconstruction in the city's older neighborhoods as deferred maintenance can cost more in the end, such as repairing water mains in the winter.
He said the task force also wanted to see better planning in the city's long-range Capital Improvement Plan to give residents more time to plan to pay for projects and also that if interest rates the city sees are dropped that the savings be passed back to those paying special assessments rather than go into the city's general fund.
One member of the task force, Kristy Fremstad, also spoke up and talked about her situation where they first faced a $50,000 special assessment on their "smaller apartment building" when Fourth Street was rebuilt in central Fargo after the city started a 50/50 split in 2015. It was lowered to $22,000 when the city reduced the split for projects to 70/30 last summer.
However, she still called it a "huge problem" when her neighbors across the street were only paying $1,300.
Another issue was raised by Richard Howden, who lives near 25th Street and 13th Avenue, who wondered why he had to pay for a street reconstruction on an arterial road "10 blocks from his house."
This, said city special assessment coordinator Dan Eberhardt, who works in the city engineer's office, was because the city has improvement districts to help pay for arterial road projects that are nearby.
Mayor Tim Mahoney, however, said residents paying those "specials" for arterial roads they don't live on was "something we hear a lot about.." He said that would certainly be one of the issues they address when discussing lowering special assessments bills.
As for property owners in new developments, or "greenfields" as they are called, the city and the task force seem to think that property owners should continue to pay 100 percent of costs for sewer, water, street lights and pavement, which Mahoney said helps keep the cost of the lot that developers sell at a lower cost.
Grindberg also said this gives homebuilders who may not be able to afford to start a development a chance to build residences in those new areas of the city.
One couple in far south Fargo, however, told the gathering they were facing a $70,000 special assessment on their horse farm property and faced more now that the city is developing 64th Avenue South. The couple was told they could visit with Eberhardt to see if there was anything that could be done.
Eberhardt said the city's special assessment office was open to people who would like to discuss their bills or any plans for future assessments.
Although it appears that specials might not go away as City Commissioner Tony Gehrig told The Forum earlier and reiterated at the hearing, Mahoney did agree with him that "to do nothing wasn't an option."
Mahoney said the city has been paying a lot for flood protection projects in recent years, which has taken up a lot of the city's capital.
He said the special assessment was "one tool" to continue to do projects that include about six to eight full street reconstruction projects annually and other work in replacing infrastructure that is often 60 to 100 years old and has begun to fail.
There was an example given at the hearing that one option using the Prairie Dog funding on a Fourth Street South 80-foot lot frontage to the road would reduce the special assessment to $6,800 compared to $10,400 under current policy and $34,822 under the former 50/50 policy.
Attorney John Shockley, who spoke near the beginning of the meeting about the history of special assessments, said he saw case law dating back to 1691 in the United States so they've been around "a long time," he said.
He said every state has laws allowing for special assessments but not all utilize them. He said in North Dakota they have been on the books since the founding of the state.
Although many factors of the "specials" are policy issues, he said that projects do "cost a lot of money" and the question will always be how to fund them.