On May 2nd, the Ramsey County District Court ruled in our favor in our appeal against the City of Saint Paul’s street maintenance assessment charges.
In a 22 page written order, Judge Awsumb ruled definitively that charges assessed to properties under the Street Maintenance Service Program (SMSP) are non-uniform taxes thus requiring proof of special benefit, not regulatory fees.
The court agreed with our argument that the SMSP program was not meaningfully distinguishable from the previous ROW program, which had been the subject of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s adverse ruling in First Baptist Church vs. City of Saint Paul (2016).
First Baptist Decision Still Controlling Law
The City sought to rely upon specific statutory authorization for the remaining four services still included in the program (street sweeping, lighting, seal coating, and mill & overlay). In assessing that claim, the Court concluded that “where there is no public nuisance, hazardous condition, or damage created by a property owner… the maintenance and provision of SMSP services are an exercise of the tax powers and not an exercise of the police powers, regardless of what statute the City claim applies”.
Evaluating the purpose of the charges, the Court was unconvinced by the City’s claim that the SMSP program was an attempt to comply with the 2016 ruling. In actuality, the court found that “It is apparent that the City redrafted its program’s parameters in a way to circumvent the ruling in First Baptist 2016. The City’s primary purpose in creating the SMSP was to raise the same funding that it raised with ROW, but to use different language and a different process to raise that funding so as not to run afoul of First Baptist (2016).”
Having evaluated both the language and the purpose of the SMSP charges, the court found that the charges are an exercise of the City’s tax power, not its fee power, and are therefore not valid unless the City can show a ‘special benefit’ to the properties assessed. Which of course, it can’t. Regular street maintenance is a basic municipal expectation and does not increase property values, as would be necessary to demonstrate special benefit.
We are hopeful that today’s ruling finally brings an end to almost two decades of illegal, non-uniform taxation dressed up as regulatory fees, and that the City of Saint Paul chooses instead to pay for street maintenance through normal property taxes – as it should have done from the beginning.