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Bay shifts assessment policy

May 7, 2014

Whitefish Bay — The Whitefish Bay Village Board has made a major shift in the way it charges residents for public infrastructure improvements, moving the financial burden of new construction projects from nearby homeowners to the general village tax roll.

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 carriage walks between the curb and sidewalk. They also pay 25 to 30 percent of the cost of road construction in front of their houses.

The revised ordinance adopted by the board Monday night will virtually eliminate those 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, including sanitary sewer laterals and driveway approaches. For the resurfacing of a street, the village would fund the cost of the overlay, but not driveway approaches. Carriage walks will still be funded through special assessments.

The policy change has been discussed over the course of several Public Works Oversight Committee meetings, as well as a recent public hearing before the Village Board. Whitefish Bay residents still hoped to sway the board with their comments during Monday night's meeting.

One downfall of the current special assessment policy is that groups of neighbors often lobby the village board to prevent a project with a large special assessment attached. Resident Paul Smith said shifting those special assessment costs to the general tax roll is going to create a similar backlash, even if the response is delayed.

"If you put it on the real estate taxes, you're not going to hear from people right away," he said. "But in a few years from now, when those taxes go through the roof, you're going to hear about it."

On the flip side of the coin, resident Phil Wheeler made the case that property owners can budget for an annual tax bill, but it's more difficult to budget for a surprise special assessment. Other residents made the case that infrastructure improvements benefit the entire village, not just nearby homeowners.

Alleys included

The board voted 4-3 to approve the policy, with a difference of opinion on whether the village tax base should pay for alley improvements. The majority of the board agreed that alleys should be funded by the entire village, while trustees Tara Serebin, Will Demet and Jay Miller argued homeowners should be responsible for 50 percent of the cost. Currently, homeowners with alleys are responsible for 100 percent of the improvement costs.

Both sides made their case about whether alleys are public or private thoroughfares. Alleys are mostly used by people who live on the alley, some argued. But others argued that alleys are unlike driveways in that the village decides when repairs are necessary, and they are used by village vehicles. The village has $3 million worth of alley construction planned over the next 15 years.

Resident Nicholas Petrie said that equating an alley to a driveway is a false analogy.

"I can't have a graduation party in an alley; I can't set up a barbeque in an alley," he said. "It's a public right of way."

Demet argued that it is equally problematic to equate an alley to a public street.

"To say there's no significant difference between a street and an alley is a clear exaggeration," he said. "I think the fact that we're moving from 100 percent of the cost being paid by a homeowner to 50 percent, with the village taking up half of it, is more than fair."

In the end, the board approved village payment of 100 percent of alley work.

Tax impact

The village's 15-year capital improvement plan, approved in 2012, calls for $105 million in improvements, a significant amount of which would have been 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 32 years.

The policy would take effect retroactively to Jan. 1, 2014, meaning those facing special assessments this year will be exempted. The sudden policy change has provoked reaction from residents like Pam Ringsred who have previously paid assessments. Ringsred said she paid $7,000 for street repairs on Courtland Place, and she believes it is unfair that future infrastructure repairs will be borne by the entire village.

"Some of us have already been taxed, so I look at this as a second taxation," she said. "I find it very inequitable. I think something needs to be done because some of us already paid those (assessments) for our street repairs. Why should we be asked to pay for somebody else?"

In the coming months Whitefish Bay trustees will consider reimbursing — either partially or wholly — those property owners who have paid special assessments for sanitary sewer laterals in the public right of way.

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