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Willmar drops all street overlay work this year after some residents object

This scene from June 2013 will not be repeated this summer in Willmar. Here a crew from Duininck Inc. of Prinsburg works to mill and overlay a portion of Trott Avenue Southwest in the Willmar industrial park. The Willmar City Council dropped all the overlay projects from this year’s street improvements after residents in some areas objected. (Tribune file photo by Tom Cherveny)

WILLMAR — A city official says comments made during the City Council’s two-hour street improvement assessment hearing may have left the mistaken impression that the city has a pool of money available for street work.

“During the discussion, people thought that money could be reallocated to another street,’’ City Finance Director Steve Okins said in an interview. “There is not a pool of money sitting here to do streets.’’

Okins was referring to comments that surfaced during the June 16 hearing when the council voted 5-3 to remove the five overlay projects from this year’s street improvement program.

Okins explained that the city finances street reconstruction, new construction and overlays through the sale of bonds. Those bonds are paid with a combination of assessments levied against benefitted property owners and interest earnings from the community investment fund. The bonds are paid over a 10-year period.

Okins said $327,000 of the overlay projects’ $457,000 cost was to be assessed. The $130,000 difference would have been paid by interest earnings from the community investment fund.

The effect of the council’s action to remove all overlay projects this year will be to reduce the amount of money the city will borrow to finance street improvements this year, said Okins.

“We haven’t finalized any of the financing with the local banks,’’ he said. “We have to go back and calculate all the new totals and it will reduce the amount that we are talking to them about financing.’’

Voting in favor of removing the overlays were council members Ron Christianson, Steve Ahmann, Tim Johnson, Jim Dokken and Rick Fagerlie.

Voting against were Audrey Nelsen, Bruce DeBlieck and Denis Anderson.

The council’s action is unheard of in recent memory, said another city official.

“I have not witnessed any council dumping the whole overlay list on an improvement project,’’ said City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday, who has been with the city for the past 28 years.

The city’s engineering staff had recommended overlays to extend street life and delay costlier reconstruction later on portions of Seventh Street Southeast, Ninth Street Southwest, 10th Street Southwest, 23rd Street Southwest and 25th Street Southeast.

Also, reconstruction was proposed on portions of Ninth Street Northwest and Gorton Avenue Northwest; and new construction of 12th Street Southeast.

The council voted June 16 after residents on Ninth Street Southwest and 10th Street Southwest said their streets did not need overlays.

Ninth Street Southwest resident Terry Brunson urged council members to remove his street from the list.

“Work on our street is not needed. The surface is in very good repair compared to other streets,’’ he said.

Tenth Street Southwest resident Don Cole presented a statement signed by residents who said the street does not need an overlay. What was most interesting, said Cole, was that the signers did not question their proposed assessment or if they would have to write a check.

“The concern is the street does not need to be repaired when you look at other streets in worse condition,’’ Cole said. “Why the time and money is being spent repairing a perfectly good road,’’ he said, when nearby Rice Avenue Southwest needs work.

Justin Sharp, another 10th Street Southwest resident, said a large majority of residents opposed overlays on Ninth and 10th Streets. He said Minnesota Avenue is in much worse condition.

Public Works Director Sean Christensen said overlays are needed to extend the streets’ useful life, based on the city’s pavement management plan in place since 1995.

Christensen said every street is rated by staff and falls into a scale that indicates what work is needed. He said streets in the overlay project are actually better than many of the streets that residents are comparing to.

“The problem is when they get beyond that overlay category, you end up letting them go to the full fail state before a full reconstruct happens, which is four times the money as an overlay,’’ said Christensen.

Ahmann said the foundation of the street is still there. He said delaying one or more years would not hurt and would give citizens what they want.

“Keep the money in the fund and do more next year,’’ he said.

Christensen said eliminating streets this year will effectively move them to the bottom of the list because other streets are planned for 2015.

Ahmann also said the selection process is flawed.

Christensen said the city can always revisit the plan.

“It mimics what a lot of state (departments of transportation) do and cities do,’’ he said. “But it’s a proven method that works to maintain the streets that you have to good and great condition. At this time I believe the pavement management program is a good policy to follow and to continue on maintaining our streets.’’

Christianson said council members represent their constituents.

“I don’t know what to tell them. Yet we have to listen to their emotional pleas,’’ he said.

He suggested the Public Works/Safety Committee, which he chairs, discuss other ways of taxing for streets, and consider building streets out of concrete.

Ahmann admitted the city is falling behind on street repairs and needs to come up with a plan, possibly a special assessment for seal coating and crack filling.

Anderson said the council was faced with a gut-wrenching decision, but he was reluctant to deviate from the plan.

“We are talking to friends, we’re talking to constituents. We’re talking to neighbors. But we do have a long-established policy,’’ he said. “It’s worked. It’s a good policy.’’

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150