City Council

City Approves Remaining 2018 Assessments

The city council has approved the remaining assessments for Franklin Avenue, Prior Avenue, Third Street, and Western Avenue. The assessments returned to the agenda for the 9/25/19 city council meeting. Here’s the video stream of the assessments being approved.

The vote was originally laid over for a week at CM Prince and CM Thao’s request due to our representations at the public hearing, and then for another month to give the city’s attorney time to look into the issues raised. A closed door meeting took place two weeks ago to brief the council on our appeal and on the implications of Judge Millenacker’s adverse decision in the district court.

The city declined to comment on its reasoning. They proceeded directly to the votes, each 6-1 with CM Jane Prince casting the dissenting votes. We admire CM Prince’s principled stand. At the same meeting, she voted against the 22% proposed trash increase, noting in a subsequent statement that the city needed to “get back to basics: public safety, parks, libraries and street maintenance, and stop continually raising property taxes as if we elected officials have a blank check.”

The approval means that the short appeal window is now officially open. Our second appeal must be filed by October 15th to be timely. If you were assessed for 2018 on Franklin, Prior, Third, or Western, express your interest by completing a short form, or read more our appeal page.

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Remaining assessments laid over by one month

The City Council has laid over votes on Franklin, Prior, Third and Western for a further month to September 25th.

While the council did not share their reasoning for the layover, the most likely reason is to allow them to obtain a legal opinion from the city attorney, as we and Mr. Hoeschler urged at last week’s council meeting and in subsequent correspondence.

In a letter to the City Council sent after last week’s meeting, Mr. Hoeschler warned the city not to proceed without the backing of a legal opinion:

…the council would be proceeding in the face of contrary written opinions by both the Supreme Court and the District Court. This would amount to at least bad faith and possibly even fraud as proscribed by the city charter.

In our email and executive summary to the council, we reiterated similar concerns:

The city attorney’s statement at the Council Meeting on August 21st that the city was simply ‘proceeding’ under the fee power and not the tax power is not credible and not in line with Minnesota law.

Over the past few years, the City’s default position has been to press on regardless of the law. This has resulted in much expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately avoidable litigation. The recent litigation over organized trash collection is a prime example. Judge Millenacker’s decision on SMSP is a clear signal to the city that the fee theory is no more legal under the rebranded SMSP than it was under ROW. With this information now in hand, we’re glad the City Council is taking the time to reconsider its position on the legality of these assessments.

We’ve reached out to the council for comment on the layover, and will update this post if we hear any more from them.

Update (9/3/19): As we thought, the council has asked for this layover to give the city attorney time to assess the legal and policy implications of Judge Millenacker’s recent decision. That decision is clear: despite the changes the City made to the old ROW program, these assessments are taxes, not fees, and must pass the ‘special benefit’ test in order to be legal.

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Council delays vote on Franklin, Prior, Third and Western assessments

The City Council has delayed a vote on the revised assessments for Franklin Ave., Prior Ave., Third Ave., and Western Ave by a week to August 28th.

Simon Taghioff from Fair Streets St. Paul and our attorney Jack Hoeschler both spoke at the public hearing (video).

Public Hearing: Mill & Overlay Unfair and Illegal

Simon: “let’s find a fair way, together, to pay for the streets we all use.”

Referencing the Mayor’s own words in his budget remarks last week, as well as the Street Conditions Report from the City’s own Public Works Department, Simon highlighted the inadequacy of the current Mill & Overlay policy as a means to pay for our streets:

It would cost $46.5m annually just to maintain the city’s streets at their current, crumbling level, and $51m to bring them up to where they should be. Mayor Carter’s budget allocates just $20m.

If approved today, these Mill & Overlay assessments would raise just $220,000 in revenue over 10 years. Against a $29m annual shortfall. That’s a drop in the bucket. It does nothing to fix our streets. All it does is leave people with bills for thousands of dollars to pay for wear and tear they didn’t cause.

Hoeschler: City “Naked” Without Written Legal Opinion

Mr. Hoeschler drew attention to the precedent established in First Baptist, recently affirmed as applicable to the current Street Maintenance Program at the District Court level in a recent opinion from Judge Millenacker:

The fact of the matter is the Minn. Supreme Court and now the District Court…has repeated that the key question for the City to look at is “What is the purpose of this expenditure?”

If the purpose of this charge is to regulate behavior on the part of the residents, then there could be a legitimate fee associated with that. But if the purpose of this charge is to raise revenue, and I think that’s what it is…then it can only be done by regular taxes, or as a special assessment if you can show that there is a special benefit involved.

When CM Prince asked the City Attorney, Ms. Tierney, to respond, her only reply was that the city was proceeding under its fee power, an argument that has been rejected repeatedly by the courts.

Council Members Not Briefed on Millenacker Judgment

In light of the remarks from Mr. Hoeschler, CMs Prince and Thao moved to lay over the matter for an additional week to August 28th, in order to give them a chance to get a better understanding of the points raised and to read Judge Millenacker’s recent opinion. It’s clear that even after an additional 2 months to reconsider this matter, the Council is not in possession of the information they need to make an informed decision.

From the beginning, our preferred option has been to work with the City Council and City Attorney to reach a productive, fair outcome for all. We will be submitting a short explainer to the City Council to help them get up to speed and put them in a position to ask probative questions of the City Attorney.

As Mr. Hoeschler stated – if the City Council wants to proceed, the bare minimum requirement is for the City Attorney to submit a reasoned written legal opinion to explain why they are continuing to rely upon a legal theory which the courts have clearly and repeatedly struck down.

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Carter announces 2020 budget – street funding takes center stage

Mayor Carter launched his proposed 2020 budget for St. Paul yesterday, and finding a sustainable way to fund our streets was a central theme.

Referencing last week’s report from the city’s public works department, Mayor Carter accepted that “keeping street spending at the current rate would render more than half our roads undrivable in just 20 years.” The $20m in spending allocated (already an increase from historic funding levels) falls well short of the $46.5m needed annually to meet the existing target of 65% PCI, with $51m needed to meet the ideal target of 70% PCI. At current spending rates, roads with a supposed lifespan of 60 years will be resurfaced every 289 years.

Mayor wants to share the load

In a statement dripping with irony in light of the city’s current mill & overlay policy, Carter added:

Saint Paul taxpayers are not alone in using and causing wear and tear on city streets, and we should not have to bear the cost of maintaining them alone.

The Mayor promised to “work actively with our partners in county and state government” to get help paying for the existing street network. He has a point. St. Paul residents aren’t causing the majority of damage to the street network directly. As the capital city of the state of Minnesota, the seat of Ramsey County, and a regional economic hub, St. Paul attracts all kinds of road users beyond its residents, including heavy commercial vehicles that disproportionately damage the roads.

And with the city’s population set to grow by 30,000 in the next 20 years, simply pouring more money in to the existing street networks isn’t sustainable. Carter set out a vision for a broader transportation policy that incentivizes people to use other options such as walking, cycling, shared vehicles and public transit. An example of this approach is a newly announced plan for Ayd Mill Road, which would convert its east side to a bike path, halving the number of lanes and reducing wear by shifting traffic to county and state-funded roadways.

Following the address, the mayor fielded questions from reporters. When asked about pending lawsuits against the city on mill & overlay, organized trash collection, and right of way assessments, amongst others, the mayor stressed that it was important to “take a fresh look” and to “work with our residents”.

As and when Mayor Carter decides he’s ready to turn words in action, our contact details are right here on our website.

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Voting date set for 4 laid over projects

The City has set new Public Hearing dates for the four laid over projects on FranklinWesternThird, and Prior.

At its meeting on July 10th, the City scheduled all four projects for Public Hearings on August 21st at 5.30pm. Revised assessment rolls (detailing the new charges per property) were included on the agenda:

It is still possible for property owners on these four projects to submit written objections to the council for consideration on August 21st, and to attend the meeting to voice your objection in person. A written objection can be as simple as an email to your Council Member.

Given that the City has already re-negotiated the rate for Mill & Overlay assessments, the most likely outcome is that the city will pass the remaining four projects without further revision.

You can choose to accept your new assessment (which may still be thousands of dollars), or appeal. If you would like to learn more about the appeals process, including participating in our joint appeal, check out our new appeals page.

City reduces assessments

After 2 months of closed door discussion, the City of St. Paul has presented its proposed revisions to the 2018 Mill & Overlay assessments. Acknowledging moving testimony from residents, the City took the following action:

  • New assessment rolls with reduced rates were presented for the four laid over projects (Stryker, Forest, Victoria, Arlington), which were approved at the June 19th meeting.
  • The four previously approved projects (Franklin, Western, Third, and Prior) were withdrawn. They will be reintroduced in the coming weeks with revised assessment rolls.

The reductions vary per project, but are up to 60% lower than the original amount billed:

  • Stryker Ave. has been reduced from $57.50 to $22.06 per lft. (62% reduction).
  • Forest St. has been reduced from $40.94 to $18.31 per lft. (55% reduction).
  • Victoria St. has been reduced from $32.63 to $17.02 per lft. (48% reduction).
  • Arlington Ave. has been reduced from $30.08 to $24.61 per lft. (18% reduction).

The reductions will benefit all property owners for 2018, including those who already paid in part or full. Residents that have already made a payment will be receiving a partial refund from the City.

The City did not explain its reasoning in the meeting, but it seems the majority of the difference represents the removal of sidewalk reconstruction costs from the amounts billed directly to residents. These costs will instead come out of the general fund, which means that they will be shared by all residents of St. Paul.

Our Response

We welcome the City’s changes as a positive step towards a fair way to pay for Mill & Overlay work. CM Noecker in particular, along with CP Brendmoen, has been working behind the scenes to reduce the burden these assessments placed on affected property owners. As a result of this process, property owners will in many cases see their individual assessments reduced by thousands of dollars.

We maintain that there is further work to be done. CM Noecker stated that the City Council is open to finding a fairer way to pay for street maintenance work going forward. CM Prince echoed that sentiment – noting that the hardship was ‘astonishing’. She pointed to the disconnect between bike lanes, where the City very much emphasizes that people do not own the roads in front of their homes, and street maintenance, which relies on the fiction that they do. She makes a good point.

Now that the new assessment rolls for Stryker, Forest, Victoria, and Arlington have passed, property owners on these projects who wish to appeal have just 20 days to do so – by July 9th. If you choose not to appeal, you will pay an assessment at the new, reduced rate.

Our position remains that these are taxes, and therefore fail the ‘special benefit’ test amongst other concerns. Despite the City’s welcome changes, we’re still paying thousands of dollars, while our neighbors pay little or nothing to maintain major streets that benefit the entire community.

We’ll be appealing our own assessment. If you’re considering appealing yours, we’re happy to talk more. Please contact us at oppose@victoriastreetassessment.com.

Vote delayed again – resolution expected June 19th

At yesterday’s City Council meeting, the vote was laid over for a further two weeks to June 19th.

Council President Amy Brendmoen said that they have “reached a resolution” on the Mill & Overlay issue but needed the additional time to “correct the record”.

The delay will give the Council time to get the Mill & Overlay projects that were previously approved re-opened and on the agenda, and to generate updated Assessment Rolls to reflect their proposed changes.

Vote Laid Over to June 5th

At the City Council meeting on May 22nd, the Mill & Overlay votes for the remaining four projects were laid over again to June 5th. Council President Brendmoen stated that discussions were ongoing with Public Works on a way forward and that they hoped to have those discussions completed by then.

As we’ve noted previously, the City Council is planning to treat all nine projects that were completed in 2018 in the same way.

Voting Delayed by Further 2 Weeks

Earlier this week we spoke with Councilmember Rebecca Noecker for a progress update on the Mill & Overlay issue.

CM Noecker confirmed that the City Council intends to address the inequity this policy has created, and that she, along with Council President Brendmoen and their colleagues, are in discussions behind the scenes with Public Works etc. on a solution.

The Council were hoping to have completed this work for the May 8th meeting but need more time. That’s why the vote was delayed by a further 2 weeks. The Council are now targeting the Wednesday May 22nd meeting.

CM Noecker also assured us that, at a minimum, all 9 of the projects for 2018 will be addressed together. That means the five projects that were approved at the April 3rd meeting (Third, Western, Prior, Franklin, and Wilson) are being included in this reconsideration of the policy.

This is highly encouraging news. It sounds like there is a disconnect between the legislative intent and the way this policy has played out in practice. We welcome the efforts being made behind the scenes to fix it, creating a fairer way to share the cost of this work now and in future.

April 10th Meeting: Voting Delayed to May 8th!

At its April 10th Council Meeting, the City Council was due to vote on the 4 projects (Victoria, Stryker, Arlington, and Forest) that had been held over from the original April 3rd meeting.

Councilmember Noecker, President Brendmoen, and Councilmember Busuri moved to hold over the votes for 30 days to May 8th (watch the video). Councilmember Noecker thanked everyone who participated in the Public Hearings, acknowledging the valid issues that have been raised, and said the council needed some time to dig in and consider the mill & overlay policy.

This is a hugely positive step towards getting this issue resolved. We’re extraordinarily grateful to everyone who has taken the time to write a written objection (here’s a PDF with the 65+ we collected), who contacted their Councilmember, or who attended and spoke at the Public Hearing on April 3rd – you’ve made a difference.

Although a number of questions remain, and the status of the 5 projects approved on April 3rd is unclear, our concerns have been heard and the Council is taking them seriously. That’s all we could reasonably ask of our elected representatives at this stage. The Pioneer Press covered the story too.

From the start, we’ve advocated for a fair allocation of costs – one that more accurately reflects the benefit these thoroughfares provide to the neighborhood and wider community. We’re hopeful that a fair, pragmatic outcome can be found that addresses the concerns we’ve raised in the short term, and that this is the first step towards a more equitable policy.