By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Dozens of property and business owners seethed when the city of St. Paul handed out $2.3 million in assessments for street improvements on the Green Line light rail construction project.
Still, it came as a surprise this week when someone not only complained but stepped up, refusing to pay a $23,000 assessment for streetscape and lighting improvements — at least for now.
Even more surprising the group that decided to take on the city wasn’t a business or landlord, but rather another unit of local government, namely, the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District board. MMCD owns a building on the University Avenue corridor for the 11-mile-long Green Line.
“Any kind of assessment, whether you’re a home owner or a business owner or anybody that owns some property, any time you get assessed for something it tends to raise hackles,” said Mike McLean, communications coordinator for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District. “People want to make sure they’re charged no more or less than what they owe.”
The government agency’s board reacted like irate taxpayers getting an unexpected $23,000 notice, which, some board members said, they heard about for the first time during Wednesday’s monthly meeting.
The assessment was tucked away on Page 9 of the board’s information packet, along with a new $4,317 annual right-of-way and street maintenance assessment.
“We had a big discussion and people were getting a little more angered as it went on,” said Tom Workman, a Carver County commissioner and MMCD board member. “We’ve got to at least appeal this thing and find out what we can do, maybe get someone to evaluate what our damages are.”
A check of state law indicated MMCD was not exempt from the assessment. Executive director Stephen Manweiler’s report said “these assessments can be covered by MMCD’s current budget.”
But board members — county commissioners with hands on experience with tax assessments — took it more personally and wanted to fight it.
“I’m a former mayor and City Council member for many, many years, and I’ve been involved in more special assessment issues than I care to talk about,” said Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan. “I know the burden of proof is on the City of St. Paul to establish the fact that we did in fact benefit to the extent of the special assessment under Chapter 429 of Minnesota statutes. They have got the burden of proof.”
NOT SO FAST: County commissioners with hands-on experience with special tax assessments pushed the MMCD to do what other property owners dream of doing — challenge the city’s $23,000 light rail tax bill.
Most MMCD board members come from adjoining counties whose taxes already help subsidize the inner city light rail line that’s unpopular with them and some constituents.
“What did they spend on the Green Line, $950 million? And four years of crazy construction that we almost put all these people out of business and changed lives?” said Anoka County Commissioner Julie Braastad. “Now that things are said and done, we’re getting these tax bills from the city? To me, it’s more insult to injury.”
Moreover, some commissioners still think the MMCD got a raw deal from the government entities in charge of the Green Line’s construction. The project required removal of several mature trees on MMCD property, as well as part of the agency’s land for a right-of-way on University Avenue. The MMCD received about $125,000 in compensation, but some commissioners still question the way local, state and federal authorities handled negotiations.
“We gave up more, in my opinion, than what we were reimbursed for,” said Egan. “Then the city turns around and tries to stick us with a special assessment after all that and it irked me. We should force them to prove that we, in fact, received the benefit they claim we did.”
The MMCD missed an Oct. 15 public meeting held to allow property owners to challenge their light rail assessments. But the agency plans to submit an appeal to the city via letter before the City Council makes a final decision on proposed assessments.
“It’s like anything else. We have to make sure that no matter who is asking us to pay up for something, whether it’s a city or another government agency or a private contractor, you have to make sure they do charge fairly,” said McLean of the MMCD’s appeal.