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Tribune Opinion: Willmar's street assessment policy is faulty and unfair

City of Willmar's street improvement policy is faulty is resulting in assessments that exceed the benefit to properties being assessed. The City Council must fix this situation or endanger future street improvement as well as risk significant finance risk and damages.

A worker uses a road roller to compact new road material deposited along 6th Street SW on Tuesday, August 16, 2022.
A worker uses a road roller to compact new road material deposited along Sixth Street Southwest on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune file photo
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The Willmar City Council has opened a Pandora's box by maintaining a street assessment policy that allows higher assessments than the increased value to a property, which is likely headed to a legal fight for the city. To make matters worse, the City Council in recent years has been advised multiple times about the city's faulty policy and has failed to fix it.

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In addition, individual council members have responded in public to numerous complaints from one specific street's neighborhood this year, but have not raised any concerns about another street being assessed in the same way in a neighborhood that has a more diverse population. A simple question, why?

The major problem has been the failure of the City Council in recent years to address and fix the city's faulty assessment policy, which has resulted in assessments exceeding the amount by which the property benefits.

The City Council has been previously advised that the assessments for street improvements could easily exceed the benefit to properties being assessed. Minnesota law, in fact, prohibits exactly that: The amount of an assessment may not exceed the benefit accrued to the property as a result of the improvement.

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The city's legal position here is extremely weak based on similar assessment cases historically in other Minnesota cities. Basically, the various cities have lost in court and the property owners won.

At an Aug. 16 City Council meeting, only 17 of the 60-plus property owners to be assessed for 2023 street improvements addressed the City Council about their assessment objection, which, by law, registered their objection to their assessment and protected their right to sue the city in the future if no remedy is reached. Individual property owners who did not appear during a hearing to object to their assessment do not have the right under state law to contest an assessment any further.

After those residents had made their comments, the public comment period of the hearing was closed and the City Council began its deliberations.

Later in the deliberations, Councilor Audrey Nelsen made the motion to continue the assessment hearing at the September meeting. The city attorney later advised staff and the City Council to continue the assessment deliberations as the public comment period had been closed.

During the September meeting, however, Nelsen said it had been her intent to extend the public comment period as well and she supported the amendment to the agenda to do so. The City Council's action to take additional public comment opened the current assessment process to further possible legal risk.

The City Council then continued to make this policy dysfunction even worse. The council made no decision and continued the hearing again, supposedly for only further deliberations until Oct. 11.

The council still has not addressed the original problem — Willmar's fault street assessment policy.

By failing to previously correct a faulty assessment policy and continuing the current assessment hearings, the City Council has now risked further lawsuits against the city by the landowners currently being assessed, but also possibly those landowners assessed in recent years.

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The City Council's continued inaction on the assessment policy has just kicked this can of worms down the road. Now the city could easily be facing a significant class-action suit from the owners assessed for the latest round of assessment for street improvements and also others in recent years. Already resident Tom Anderson told the City Council at the Sept. 6 meeting that he was speaking for 22 residents, which is more than the original 17 owners who spoke initially in August.

The latest streets assessments range from about $2,000 to more than $17,000, depending on the specific property location.

This is a new and significant liability risk, which will, in turn, not only cost the city legal fees plus settlement costs, but could significantly impact the city's bond rating and availability.

Finally, the failure to fix the city's faulty assessment policy may negate any future street improvements in the coming years until this assessment policy is resolved. That, in turn, will only increase the future costs of Willmar street improvements, which are badly needed, due to time delays and increasing construction costs.

It is time the City Council take corrective action soon and adopt a fair and impartial street assessment policy that does not assess an amount that exceeds the benefit accrued to the property as a result of the improvement.

This Tribune Opinion editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune editorial board, consisting of publisher Steve Ammermann and editor Kelly Boldan.

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The West Central Tribune Editorial Board consists of publisher Steve Ammermann and editor Kelly Boldan.

The board can be reached at opinion@wctrib.com or 320-235-1150.
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