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Whitefish Bay rethinking stance on special assessments

Proposal would put cost of projects on village-wide tax roll instead of individual property owners

April 30, 2014

Whitefish Bay — For years, a Whitefish Bay resident's tax bill has only reflected a portion of their costs to the village. If their street or alley was being reconstructed, or if a sewer lateral was being installed on their street, the homeowner would have to pay a special assessment to cover a portion of the cost, in addition to his or her taxes.

Now, as some homeowners are facing special assessments as high as $10,000, some residents have called on the village board to include those public infrastructure costs in the overall tax bill, arguing that the cost of a new sewer lateral or road reconstruction ultimately benefits the entirety of the village. The village board last week took a step in the direction of change.

Facing steep costs

Whitefish Bay Village Hall was packed with residents in support of the policy change during a public hearing Thursday night. Many of the residents live on streets facing steep special assessments this year.

"Our storm water problems are a villagewide problem; It doesn't matter if you live in the north side of the village or the south side of the village," said Hollywood Avenue resident Magdalena Kolosovsky.

Currently, Whitefish Bay residents pay special assessments on driveway approaches, sidewalks in front of their house, sanitary sewer laterals in the public right of way, alleys abutting their property, and 25 to 30 percent of the cost of road construction in front of their house.

Hollywood Avenue resident Joe Olson said special assessments often mobilize groups of neighbors to fight village hall, which prevents the village board from moving forward with projects that are in the best interest of the village.

Double impacts

The assessment policy has doubly impacted some residents, like Amy Hall, who said she was assessed at her previous home on Berkeley Boulevard only to move to a new home on Larkin Street, where she was assessed again for another village project.

"It's crazy to pay that on two separate properties," Hall said.

After hearing resident after resident come to the podium to support the policy change Thursday night, the Whitefish Bay Village Board approved an ordinance drafted by the Public Works Oversight Committee that would shift the financial burden of new construction projects from nearby homeowners to the general village tax roll. The board will vote on the policy change at its meeting on Monday.

New approach

The proposed new policy would virtually eliminate special assessments. When the village reconstructs a street, the village would fund 100 percent of the cost of all improvements in the public right of way and the replacement of driveway approaches. For the resurfacing of a street, the village would fund the cost of the overlay, but not driveway approaches.

The village's 15-year capital improvement plan, approved in 2012, calls for $105 million in improvements, a significant amount of which would be funded with special assessments. By switching the financial burden to the general tax rolls, the owner of a $350,000 home would pay an additional $4,149 in taxes and $2,084 in sewer charges over the course of 32 years. As residents with $10,000 assessments are learning, the estimated increase of $6,233 might be less than the cost of a personal assessment that might come in the mail over the course of the next 32 years.

Who benefits?

The policy would take effect retroactively to Jan. 1, 2014, meaning those facing special assessments for this year's construction projects would be off the hook. The policy change triggered reaction from residents who have paid thousands of dollars in past assessments.

"I think there has to be some kind of grandfathering for those of us who paid our fair share," said Janet Doellman of Berkeley Blvd.

Trustees took note of those residents' concerns, and directed village staff to research past assessments and how those funds might be reimbursed.

Interim Village Manager Steven Sheiffer said village staff could research the number of public sewer laterals that have been installed in the last five years, and then present the fiscal impact of those reimbursements to the village board a month from now.

What about alleys?

The village board also debated whether alleys should be funded publicly or privately. Originally, the Public Works Oversight Committee had decided to fund 50 percent of the alley construction because alleys function similar to a private driveway. Trustee Tara Serebin pointed out that private driveways don't get village assistance, so alleys should not be fully financed by the village.

Village President Julie Siegel, who said she recently paid an alley assessment, suggested the village fund 100 percent of alley construction work. Four trustees agreed with Siegel's suggestion, while Serebin and Trustee Will Demet said the village should only be responsible for 50 percent of the cost. The ordinance to be considered by the board Monday night would not assess residents for alleys. If the board chooses to assess alley work, the overall tax levy would be reduced.

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