The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Council to take “a beating:” Should property owners along major streets help pay to improve them?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey, Tom Podzimek on April 18, 2008 at 3:41 am

Four major road improvement projects on busy arterial streets are coming up in 2009. You might want to take note if you live on stretches of Council Street NE, C Avenue NE, Williams Boulevard SW and 33rd Avenue SW where the construction equipment is coming to.

At this week’s City Council meeting, Rob Davis, the city’s engineering manager, pointed to a recent public input session with residents on C Avenue NE as the city prepares for the road-widening and improvement project there. Few who attended, said Davis, fixated on what the design of the street might include and what amenities might come with it. Instead, most expressed “trepidation” about a possible special assessment that would require them to pay some portion of the project cost.

The residents talked about equity, fairness and consistency, Davis said.

He told the City Council that levying a special assessment on property-owners is an unpopular topic, and it is so, in part, because such assessments can be inconsistently applied, even in Cedar Rapids, he said.

He was in front of the council this week to have it ponder just what kind of policy it might want to hammer out in the months ahead so that such assessments, if they come on next year’s four major street projects, will be equitable, fair and consistent.

Along with Davis was Jeff Morrow, a consultant with Anderson-Bogert Engineers & Surveyors Inc. of Cedar Rapids, who is helping the city wade through the assessment policy discussion.

Morrow put it this way:  “The council will probably take a beating.”

Morrow said the council would get beat up if it did decide to assess by those who would complain that others on other projects may not have been assessed. If the council decided against assessments, they would get beat up by those from other projects who have been assessed.

“That’s why we’d like to have a draft policy going into these four projects,” Morrow said.

Council member Tom Podzimek framed one side of the issue when he said most residents who pay property taxes think that they already are paying for any street improvement via taxes. Anything else is seen as “hidden costs,” Podzimek said.

Sorting out the other side of the issue, council member Pat Shey said the “philosophical underpinnings” of special assessments is that the road improvement benefits the property along the improved road and, so, increases the value of that property. So it can be fair to specially assess that property for part of the cost of the improvement, he reasoned.

Dave Elgin, public works director and city engineer, reported to the City Council that city staff had participated in an “event” last week in which city staff and representatives of the development community met over several days to discuss development issues.

Elgin said that group of “stakeholders” had weighed in with city staff on development issues, including special assessments.

One point developers make is that those building new developments pay for the cost of new streets and then build that cost into the value of the lots they sell. But why should those in existing houses not, too, have to share in some of the cost of improvements? developers ask .

Elgin said two central questions for the City Council are these as it works to consider a policy on special assessments for improvements on arterial roads:

— What is the definition of a special benefit for which a property owner should pay an assessment?

— And what percentage of a project’s costs should any special assessment be?

The council also will wrestle with what part of a project provides a general benefit to the community and what percentage affords a special benefit to certain property owners.

The council, too, will consider “disbenefits.” In other words, what part of a road project much actually lessen the value of a person’s property.

City staff talked about the need to convene focus groups and public input sessions.

Podzimek, though, said most people in town could care less about the discussion if there were no plans and not apt to be plans to improve their streets.

He suggested the city convene the residents along the four arterial streets that are to be improved next year to get their input on special assessments.

Elgin also said his staff would provide information to the council about the assessment practices of other cities.

Council member Monica Vernon suggested that one option might be to have property owners pay no special assessments.

Council member Brian Fagan, though, noted that he’s interested in a discussion about “leveraging” public investment. By that, he means having some private contributions to leverage the public dollars so more can be done with the same amount of public investment.

Council member Justin Shields said no one wants a special assessment. But he argued that the city can’t sit back and not invest.

“We’ve got people convinced we shouldn’t pay taxes,” Shields said.

He then said he was paraphrasing City Manager Jim Prosser when he said, “You can let stuff go, but when you pay, you pay dearly for it.”


  1. That last line says it all. Unfortunately Cedar Rapids is finding out just how dearly letting things go actually costs. Even to push development back into the center of the city is going to be a tough sell when so little infrastructure investment has been made. Adding tons of new housing in the area is going to tax systems that have been in place for over one hundred years in some instances. Streets are not in the best of shape in most all areas of the city and where will it end? Property owners are getting about fee’d out, and they still see higher and higher tax bills on top of all the fees they pay. No easy answer, but more and more development for the sake of increasing the tax base seems not be the answer either. Maybe it has come time to decide just how big we want to be, and make this city the most desirable place on the earth. In doing that, the housing valuations will naturally come up, the only development will be only to replace anything that burns down or is distroyed by some natural means, or has completely out lived its usefulness for the building it is (Walmart comes to mind),then and only then could some new, eco friendly building replace it. We would be hell bent on keeping our infrastructure in tip top shape, and we would be considered possibly the most forward looking city in the nation! My! how I wax poetic !

  2. Many taxpayers feel this City Council is controlled by Big Money. Prime example of this is the Bottleworks/Osada project. Special strokes for special folks.

  3. This council is hardly controlled by big money. If you think that Fred Timko is “big money” then you have a very stilted view of what big money is.

    I don’t think residential property owners whould have to pay an assessment for the road improvements in front of their property. I disagree with Shey, in that if the City would’ve maintained my street better in the first place (thanks a lot Don Thomas), I would have no property valuation issue in the first place.

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