Special Assessments Part 3: What Can Be Done?
Special Assessments are always in the back of people's minds. Specials don't typically come to the forefront until projects are assessed and properties affected are notified by letter that a Special Assessment is coming. When a notice gets sent out, property owners can protest the Special Assessment. If the majority of the owners protest, the assessment won't happen, and the City will have to pay for the project through other ways. There are some things that can be done, a couple of which are called out below.
Sales Tax is something I think could be investigated. With West Fargo and Fargo having the same rates, it's important that West Fargo remains competitive as not to deter consumers from shopping in West Fargo. I want to be careful with Sales Tax for that reason, and am not in favor of it unless I see data that suggests it would be beneficial. Any changes would be left to the voters to decide.
One of the things I've always wondered was why there are special assessments on new devlopments. Something that can be done is to put more on to the developers. The developers choose to develop an area, and they should be covering more of the costs, and not passing it on to the City. I feel that there could be some efficiency improvements made with the money, and ultimately, when looking at the cost of a lot and specials, the total price could be cheaper (likely not by a large margin, however). The removal of Specials on new lots would remove the uncertainty about what mortgage payments could be in a year or two after the specials have been assessed. There is some work currently being done with this, which is great. I think it's a step in the right direction. I don't want to force out developers. Development is good and contributes positively to the community. Slow and steady change in the process can help.
I've been a fan of a utility fee to help cover costs, however, in the long run, I don't think it's feasible. While there are some areas I think it would work (like alleyway maintenance), I don't know that a utility fee for other infrastructure projects is something sustainable as construction costs keep rising. These fees could be raised with little notice and not a lot of input from the Residents unless a process is changed.
As I've been on the Special Assessment Commission, I've often wondered about the assessment district boundaries. I want to look hard at how they are created, and what can be done to encompass a larger area in certain cases. With all the meetings I've attended where there was discussion of new projects, not a single time do I recall an assessment district coming up in discussion. There are many projects in the past year or two that could have justification of a larger district. While this doesn't remove Specials, it would reduce the amount assessed to properties. One example is the interserction of 13th Ave and 9th Street. The assessment district could have been extended further to the north and west, and the burden would be reduced on each property. The North Dakota Century Code restricts a whole city from being assessed for a project. Ultimately, when creating a district, there needs to be justification and show proof that the properties being assessed benefit from the project, and why others don't benefit or why they're outside of the assessment district. Again, this isn't meaning to assess more people, but rather limit the burden on those who are being assessed. The Special Assessment Committee can assign a percentage benefit to properties, which I think is a good way to help with those assessments.
The Prairie Dog Funds that the State Legislature worked on will be a valuable tool. As we're seeing with current oil prices, these funds will most likely be affected, and the local governments may not receive as much as they thought, if any at all. When we are able to get any, I want to use these funds as a tool to offset expenses that would otherwise be assessed. With using them as a tool, for me, implies that we won't be counting on them, so we need to utilize it while we can, and while we have them to help the city get right with projects and start adjusting behavior.
The last thing I'll mention here that I want to work on, which falls under my Strategic & Thoughtful Improvement, is really working to understand the projects and if they are really necessary. While there has been a lot of growth and strain on the infrastructure, there are fewer large projects in the Capital Improvement Plan moving forward (as of the time I write this). I will push on each project to determine the necessity and ensure that what is being done is benefiting the Residents in a positive manner.
I will also push back on projects that I feel aren't necessary. In the end, there are projects that will need to be done, and they will need to be funded in some manner. However, I will work hard to ensure that nothing comes as a surprise, and we limit what is being put on the taxpayers for funding purposes. I will also make sure that we're not adding on fancy amenities after the project has been approved, this is a wreckless way of spending and does nothing but increase taxes and special assessments.