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First impressions – the good, the bad, the ugly

By Staff | Feb 21, 2009

At a recent planning session, someone asked me about my impressions of Blue Earth, since I am a relative newcomer.

(I did point out my tenure in this city is now up to one year and three months, but it didn’t make a difference. I realize that in most small towns, newcomer is a label that lasts at least five years.)

I mentioned being impressed with the schools, the industrial park, new police/fire station, the pool.

I also thought the Faribault County Courthouse was one of the coolest buildings I had seen.

The friendliness of the people in the county was also high up on my list.

Then I was asked about my negative impressions. My number one response, like so many others have said, was the condition of many of the streets.

Some were breaking up and had numerous potholes. Others were OK, but not smooth by any means.

A few were downright awful. They not only were broken up, they were rolly-polly as well.

It was hard not to notice that the streets needed some serious repair, and had not seen any work for a long time.

I quickly became aware that it was a hot topic around town, and the council was busy trying to figure out a way to fix them.

Doing all of them at once seemed to be impossible, as the cost would be in the many millions of dollars. That kind of a huge jump in taxes was not feasible.

The council agreed more than a year ago to raise the levy, with the increase in funds (about $160,000 a year) designated just for street repair.

Of course, in reality, it is difficult to just repair a street. The smart plan includes repairing what is under the street at the same time. After all, who wants to have a brand new street, just to have to dig it up and repair a broken water main?

The council didn’t use the tax levy increase money last year, and banked it. Along with the money that came in this year, they figured they could do a much larger project – specifically on five blocks of Eighth and Moore Streets.

With the added cost of the sewer and water mains, curbs and gutters, and other material, the cost is still dramatically high.

In the past those costs were passed along to the homeowners on the street, with them picking up close to 100 percent of the expense. True, it could be added to the property tax and spread out over 20 years, but it still was a big hit.

Putting a $20,000 assessment on someone’s home means that person is going to need to pony up $1,000 in extra tax money each year for 20 years. For some folks, that is darn near impossible.

Plus, there is the state law which requires an assessment for an improvement to the property actually increasing that property’s value by the same amount.

Proving that a property on Eighth Street increased in value by $20,000 because of a new street might be just as hard as having the homeowner pay that much.

Enter City Administrator Kathy Bailey, who devised a plan to make the whole street repair assessment policy more palatable.

Her plan has the affected homeowners paying a share of the improvements on their street, but also having the entire city helping out with the cost.

After all, these are public streets, and public sewer mains. Everyone can use them.

Her plan has the homeowner paying 30 percent of the street, curbs, gutters and sidewalks cost. They would also pay all of the cost of putting in a new sewer and water line from the main to their home.

That means the $20,000 assessment for one homeowner from the old plan could drop to $6,000 under the new plan.

The city would bond for the funds to pay for the whole project, and pay off those bonds from money coming in from increased monthly sewer and water service fees, the assessments to the affected homeowners, and from the city coffers, which means that $160,000 in levy money would be used to pay the bonds.

Seems like a workable plan – a way to actually get some streets repaired each year. It also seems like a fair way to spread the cost around.

Several councilmen pointed out that it is not that fair for people who paid 100 percent assessments for improvements in the past. They fear people will say, “I paid all of the cost of my street, and now you want me to pay for all the others in town, too.”

That is a valid point, but there is no way to make it fair now. Some of those folks are no longer living in the homes that were assessed.

Without spending too much time looking backwards, it is time to implement a way to get some decent streets in Blue Earth.

That way, any newcomers won’t be noticing how bad they are – or at least will note that something is being done about them.