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Nisswa: Road assessment policy passes on split vote

After a second meeting with heated discussion regarding a policy to assess residents if their road is improved, the Nisswa City Council on Wednesday, Sept. 21, approved the policy 3-2.

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After a second meeting with heated discussion regarding a policy to assess residents if their road is improved, the Nisswa City Council on Wednesday, Sept. 21, approved the policy 3-2. Echo Journal file photo

After a second meeting with heated discussion regarding a policy to assess residents if their road is improved, the Nisswa City Council on Wednesday, Sept. 21, approved the policy 3-2.

Council members Fred Heidmann and Gary Johnson voted against the policy that proposes to assess residents 30 percent of the cost to improve their road, with all city taxpayers paying the remaining 70 percent.

Heidmann has opposed the policy from the start and spoke against it at last month's council meeting. The council tabled action on the policy last month (with mayor Harold Kraus opposed) because Johnson wasn't in attendance.

When asked after the Sept. 21 meeting why he voted against the policy, Johnson said he wasn't necessarily opposed to it, but because he didn't participate in the initial discussion about the policy in August, he wasn't ready to pull the trigger on a "yes" vote. He said Sept. 21 was the first time he had heard some of the discussion, and he hadn't yet put as much thought toward the issue as others had.

In approving the policy, the council did include that the city may, at its discretion, defer any assessments for cause, and it added that road standards will be to a 20-year life cycle to protect residents.

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Three residents - Deb Cruz, Deb Krassas and Allen Jenkins - spoke to the issue. All said the council should talk to the people the policy affects before making a decision to adopt it. Heidmann read a letter from resident Jim Dullum that said the longtime existing policy for all residents to share in the cost of improving city streets should remain.

Cruz said it's not fair for people who live on frequently traveled roads - like Church Street - to pay assessments for improvements. Krassas agreed that all citizens should split the pie and share costs for road repairs.

"Why should I pay 30 percent to have my street repaired?" she asked, later adding that she'd like to see a sales tax in the city for tourists to help pay for road improvements.

Kraus explained that the assessment policy is designed to give the city a plan for the future and a way to finance future road improvements. A road improvement study tells the conditions of city roads, when they'll need work and an approximate cost for repairs. It's estimated $8 million to $9 million will be needed to repair city streets in the next five to eight years, he said.

The money is there today, but it won't be there in two to three years without significant tax levy increases, he added.

"How do you plan to go ahead and take care of these city streets without some sort of a plan? You've got to have a plan," Kraus said.

Also, the assessment policy allows the general public to be heard when a project arises, Kraus said. A feasibility study with all information would be done, and then a public hearing would be held for residents to voice opinions before a road would be improved and assessments made.

Council member Don Jacobson further explained that the city currently levies $300,000 a year for road improvements, and the majority of that is going to pay off the Highway 371 tunnel project and the County Road 18 project that were done.

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"It's going to pile up and we're just kicking the can down the road," Jacobson said. "We're trying to say the city will pay 70 percent and residents on the road will pay 30 percent so the citizen has some skin in the game."

It was also explained that state statute says if citizens want their road repaired, they can start a petition, and with enough signatures a feasibility study would be done to determine costs and who would pay how much. Then the city and residents would decide whether to undertake the project.

One caveat is if there was opposition to a road repair, the council could override the opposition by a four-fifths vote.

Krautkremer pointed out that after a public hearing, the council could vote to have the city pay - for example - 80 percent of the cost and residents 20 percent for a road improvement.

Heidmann said he had talked to two businesses and a homeowner on Hazelwood Drive who said they couldn't afford an assessment and would possibly have to close their doors if they were assessed for a road project. One property owner wouldn't have bought property in Nisswa had he or she known about an assessment policy, Heidmann said.

"What this policy does is it takes all the leverage away from the property owners. Instead of the street needing to be repaved and getting repaved, if the citizen doesn't accept the assessment, the street doesn't get repaved and it degrades," Heidmann said, adding there is no documentation that has yet shown a need for an assessment policy for streets.

Kraus interrupted Heidmann to say he would limit discussion unless anyone had anything new to add that wasn't discussed last month.

Krassas said she lives on Hazelwood and wanted to hear what Heidmann had to say.

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"You have a room full of citizens here to get information and it's not fair to tell him he can't speak," she said.

Kraus said the public is welcome to attend council meetings and listen, or schedule a meeting with an individual.

Heidmann reiterated that the assessment policy didn't have to be adopted right away, and other options could be considered.

"Where's the data for scenarios for the council and citizens to look at? Nothing has been provided there. Zero. That was part of the motion in April that that information would be provided," he said, noting he wasn't against an assessment if it was absolutely needed, but not if no documents or facts showed that need.

After adopting the assessment policy on a split vote, the council also approved road standards and an engineering agreement with Widseth Smith Nolting not to exceed $4,200 for a feasibility study for Edna Lake Road reconstruction after the Highway 371 project is complete. The study will identify an estimated cost, and whether the project is necessary, feasible and cost effective.

Heidmann opposed both actions.

Related Topics: NISSWANISSWA CITY COUNCIL
Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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