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Residents ask for alternatives to special assessments

Many West Fargo residents who have attended community forums on special assessments say they are willing to pay higher taxes or lot prices if it means reducing special assessments.

About 132 residents attended the four forums that were held so far in January. The fifth and final forum will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 28. At each community forum, City Engineer Dustin Scott, Attorney Jon Shockley and City Administrator Tina Fisk explained the process and uses of special assessments by West Fargo, then attendees were allowed a chance to give feedback, by talking with city officials and through a written survey.

"Not everyone that came to a forum completed a survey," City Spokeswoman Melissa Richard said Monday, Jan. 21.

Special assessments are used to pay for new and reconstruction infrastructure projects in the city such as construction of a water or sewer system or street improvement projects.

While the city does use sales tax, utility fees, and state and federal grants to help with some projects, those avenues don't generate enough money to fund most projects on their own, Fisk said.

Some residents at the forums said they are willing to approve increased sales tax to help pay for projects.

The city generates approximately $10 million a year with its 2 percent sales tax, of that, $7.5 million is used for capital improvements. But, the city has projects that amount to between $30 million and $60 million each year, Fisk said.

Increasing sales tax can only be done if residents approve a ballot measure to do so. Fisk said residents showed great support for a measure and if they contact their commissioners requesting a ballot measure, it could move forward.

"I'm all for trying to utilize that for special projects," Fisk said. "I think it's a great idea, it's one of a multitude of things we need to bring together."

Some attendees showed they would be willing to pay higher utility fees in lieu of special assessments.

"At last week's event, there was high interest in the street/utility fee and how it was used, but overall ... the interest in that idea was not as high," Richard said.

According to the feedback Richard has heard so far, residents said they didn't think the special assessment districts are created fairly by the city.

Once a project is decided, a special assessment committee determines the assessment district which includes those who are directly and regionally impacted by the improvement.

"It's important to note that the special assessment officers have a tough job," Shockley said.

While residents have the right to protest projects and their special assessment districts at different times in the process, city officials and residents who attended the forums said it is often unclear when and how residents can protest, and they would like to see more communication from the city throughout the special assessment processes.

"We've heard they want stronger communication about it," Richard said.

She said there was no clear consensus when residents were asked whether they are willing to forego infrastructure projects to avoid specials, even if it means decreased services.

The final forum will be held 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, at Brooks Harbor Elementary School, 801 22nd Ave. W.

Richard said an online survey similar to the one forum attendees completed will be made available to all residents to gather more input about the subject. A final report will be presented to the City Commission at a future meeting.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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