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Commentary: Road funding a shell game

Commentary: Road funding a shell game

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2016 12:15 pm
By John Diers

With little attention and no public discussion, the Prior Lake City Council by a 4-to-1 vote recently increased your tax bill. Here’s what happened.

For decades it’s been city policy to assess neighborhoods for reconstruction of local streets, but not for reclamation and overlays.

What’s the difference?

Reconstruction involves tearing up a street and replacing the road surface because it’s no longer maintainable. Reconstruction in theory gives neighborhoods a brand new street and may involve replacement of underground utilities and curbs and gutters as well. It is extensive and therefore considered an improvement that benefits homeowners and increases property values.

Reclamation and overlay, on the other hand, involves either milling down the surface and repaving it with new blacktop or overlaying the existing surface with fresh asphalt. Until now, it was considered a maintenance expense and therefore part of the regular city budget and funded through property taxes.

Not anymore.

City management has been previewing its 2017 budget prospects with the council and, as usual, it wants more money. Never mind the tax levy was increased by 17 percent over the past two years; it wants more and, having been rebuffed when asking for still larger increases, it now seems to be using another approach. To paraphrase the words of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, “a dollar here and a dollar there and pretty soon you’ve got real money.” That’s the strategy. So henceforth, when it comes time to mill or overlay your street, get ready to shell out some real money, because you’re going to be assessed for it.

What’s next? Perhaps a separate fee for snowplowing or police and fire protection? We’ve already seen increases in our water bills.

During discussion at the council meeting, Council Member Annette Thompson vigorously opposed the change, calling it another tax, which of course it is. Mayor Ken Hedberg then blithely went on to support it, waxing in great detail about the importance of maintaining streets and how an overlay is a “special benefit,” and, incredibly, concluding that the change in assessment policy will actually save money for the taxpayers.

With all due respect, does the mayor believe we’ve all just fallen off a turnip truck? Words have meaning. Plain and simple, it’s a tax increase and a cost shift and no amount of spin is going to change it. The mayor and council need to be reminded of it, because bottom line, it’s all about city spending and the city’s debt, and a recent Standard and Poors report that’s critical of that debt (mentioned in a staff report from May 23) — something that happens when you borrow and spend too much.

But on a 3-2 vote with Council Members Thompson and Monique Morton opposed, Mayor Hedberg, along with Council Members Richard Keeney and Michael McGuire, last year voted approval of the city’s capital improvement plan, which calls for a doubling of the debt.

And where has the money gone? How many millions were given to consultants to study and restudy downtown parking, rerouting of County Road 21, running Arcadia Avenue through Pleasant Street and on through a wetland, laying out a residential plan on what is now tribal owned property at the end of Stemmer Ridge, tearing up Rolling Oaks Circle, studying the intersection of Highway 13 and Duluth, and other dead-end efforts, with nothing but reports and paperwork to show for it? How many millions have been spent on projects that yield no tangible benefits to residents, like the millions spent on the Arcadia/County Road 21 intersection and the closing of Main Avenue? Don’t forget the proposed rebuilding of the Highway 13-County Road 42 intersection, yet another project that prioritizes new development and cars and traffic over people’s homes and neighborhoods. Finally, by all means, do drive through the intersection of Highway 13 and 150th Street and take a good look at the traffic signal project that’s morphed into a million-dollar cost overrun and a rebuilding of the roadway.

Where is the accountability for all of this?

Much gets made of infrastructure spending and the need to repair roads and the like, yet it appears we are actually spending more on new construction to serve the needs of developers and real estate promoters and economic growth rather than maintaining what we already have.

Budget season is coming and so are the fall elections. Maybe it’s time to revisit the capital improvement plan and remove some projects, rather than using doublespeak to explain how a tax increase isn’t a tax increase.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)