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No refunds on Whitefish Bay assessments

Aug. 6, 2014

Whitefish Bay – After years of charging special assessments to homeowners for basic infrastructure improvements, Whitefish Bay decided in April to adopt the traditional approach of funding those projects through property taxes.

The village would no longer assess homeowners for the construction of sidewalks in front of their house, alleys behind their house or a percentage of road construction on their block. Those improvements, along with the replacement of sanitary sewer laterals in the public right of way, would now be paid by the general taxpayer, similar to most other communities in the North Shore.

But after years of playing by one set of rules, it soon became clear that the policy shift didn't sit well with those who have paid special assessments in recent history. Whitefish Bay trustees pledged to investigate the possibility of reimbursing those who paid special assessments on their sanitary sewer laterals — the priciest special assessment.

When the topic came up at the Village Board meeting Monday, Aug. 4, those recently-assessed residents showed up in force to lobby for reimbursements — or a reversal in policy.

Some of the recently assessed homeowners claimed to be charged double — once for their individual assessment and the second being the tax increase that all residents will see in the future. By switching from special assessments 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.

One of those residents was Lexington Boulevard resident John Wood, who said he paid an assessment for a sewer lateral on a different home several years ago.

"There is a growing coalition of individuals who find this inequitable," Wood said. "We ask that you consider the refund, and if that's not appropriate, you should consider changing the policy. This is a can of worms that should have been taken into account when the policy was passed."

Since 2006, 468 property owners were assessed a total of $1.3 million for sewer laterals in the public right of way. The vast majority of those lateral assessments were between $2,000 and $3,000, but eight assessments peaked at more than $5,000. Refunding those homeowners would charge the average Whitefish Bay homeowner an additional $172 over the course of five years on their sewer bill.

After hearing heated testimony from those recently-assessed homeowners, the board unanimously decided it would be simpler and more equitable to not issue refunds. Village Trustee Will Demet said the issuance of refunds for sanitary sewer laterals would amount to a less equitable policy, as it would exclude those who paid assessments for alleys, sidewalks and street construction.

"This is a clean break from the previous policy," he said. "We're not going back to pick and choose who we're going to pay off."

Village President Julie Siegel also said the issuance of refunds would create a slippery slope in policy.

"The (public works) subcommittee spent a lot of hours and this board spent a lot of hours turning what was a bad policy into a really good policy," she said. "Some people are on the wrong side of that policy possibly, but I'm not in favor of any refunds."

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