Archived Story

Council reassessing sewer plan

Published 10:10am Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Austin City Council is left with more questions than answers after voting Monday night to reassess 33 former Lansing Township properties whose owners have protested costs for a sewer project completed in 2011.

The vote follows Mower County District Judge Donald Rysavy’s ruling last month to set aside the $15,000 assessments on land owned by three property owners.

The council included in its decision the remaining 30 lots whose owners are also appealing their assessments.

“We intend to follow the ruling,” Mayor Tom Stiehm told more than 30 audience members at the City Council meeting Monday night.

The controversy started in 2006, when Austin and Lansing officials formed a committee to fix the township’s sewer issues, which included several properties piping sewage into the Cedar River. The committee eventually recommended Austin annex Lansing in order to connect homes to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Austin annexed 209.5 parcels of land in 2009, with the remainder of Lansing set for potential annexation in 2014.

The owners of about 60 parcels voiced their concerns about the annexation in 2010, after the city levied a $16,000-per-lot assessment fee for each parcel, which the city lowered to $15,000 after a subsequent reappraisal in 2012. Out of the remaining property owners, three successfully appealed their assessments last month when Rysavy ruled against the city, saying it was unreasonable to conclude the properties would benefit from the sewer project when those landowners showed their properties decreased in value.

Under state law, a city or municipality can’t assess a property for an infrastructure project by more than what the land would benefit.


Questions remain

Not everyone in attendance at Monday night’s meeting was pleased with the council’s decision, however. Phillip Eirikson is a property owner who supported the annexation, but he told the council he would sue the city of Austin if city officials reappraised the 33 lots at a lower cost than the land whose owners already agreed to a $15,000 assessment.

“It’s all or nothing,” Eirikson told the council. “You either reassess all of them or none of them. It’s either all or nothing, or I’ll be in here next week with a lawyer, and there will be a line of people behind me.”

City Administrator Jim Hurm said after the meeting city officials still weren’t sure what to do about the property owners who agreed to the assessments, and the decision to reassess the 33 lots was based on resolving legal conflicts.

“The key is those [properties] were in the lawsuit,” Hurm said. “If you take a look at what Rysavy said, he didn’t say everybody out there didn’t get their money’s worth, it was just [those three] properties. There are very different properties out there.”

The council’s decision is a day ahead of pretrial hearings in the larger appeal case, as the remaining owners will take their issues to court starting Tuesday afternoon. Several of those said they aren’t sure whether their case will be dropped as a result of the council’s vote.

City officials have yet to decide who will reappraise the 33 lots as part of the reassessment, or how best to reappraise those properties. Rysavy criticized the city in his ruling for failing to give enough information on the appraisal process, as well as using an inferior appraisal method that didn’t take into account local land values, in some cases assessing a property for more than it’s worth.

The city’s appraisal was “so unreliable as to provide virtually no indication as to the amount of the special benefit to the property,” Rysavy wrote.

It is also unclear how much money the city has spent defending itself in court, or what the reappraisal process will cost. City officials say they want to make sure property owners pay for the sewer project, instead of passing the bill onto Austin residents.

“We determined early that we are not going to bill the citizens of the rest of the city for this sewage system,” Stiehm said. “We’ve never done that, and we don’t want to do it.”

The next step for the city is to hire an appraiser, but the council gave no dates or deadlines to start the reappraisal process. Regardless, city officials are confident of one thing: This issue isn’t going away, and it’s going to cost the city more money.

“No matter what we do, we’re going to have somebody angry at us,” Stiehm told audience members during the meeting.


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  • 55912

    “No matter what we do, we’re going to have somebody angry at us,” Stiehm told audience members during the meeting.

    What you should have done, Mr. Stiehm, was to do your due dilligence up front and looked at the possible ramifications instead of shoving through a project so you could get the tax revenue and rub the township officials’ nose in how you took away 209 parcels. It was very clear at the time of the taking that many property owners did not want the project, could not afford it and that the assessments were higher than the values of some of the properties. Do not act surprised now that a court pointed out the obvoius and you are being held accountable. Hopefully the increased tax revenues that the city gained from the annexation are adequate to cover what it is going to cost the city to fix this mess.

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  • babblingbrook

    I think that the folks that are just now coming forward and voicing their opinions have had many opportunities to object to the assessment and did not. Simply put, they have lost their chance. (By law there was a procedure, a time and a place for anyone who disagreed with their outlandish assessment to object, and that time has LONG since passed). How would this be fair for them to “ride on the coat tails” of the people who have spent much expense on legal fees and countless months and even years fighting these unfair assessments? Where were these folks back when the dispute began and some of the residents went door to door trying to rally support to show the city that the project was not being run properly and the assessments were exhorbitant? NOW they come forward….

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    • 55912

      I see your point, and agree that it is not fair to those who have spent time and money on appeals. However, when I read the judge’s comments regarding the city’s negligence on properly appraising properties, it does call the entire process into question. I think that is why people are concerned now, that were not before. The appraisal method was used on all of the properties, not just those that had low values. I am guessing the city will be picking up the tab for legal fees when it is all said and done.

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