Property owners look for assessment action

Published 6:31pm Saturday, May 10, 2014

As the city of Austin moves forward with a sewer and water project in the Turtle Creek 1 neighborhood, the group of property owners that successfully sued the city last year over their assessments are concerned over city officials’ assessment approach and want answers concerning their properties.

“We’re not trying to cause trouble, but this has gone too far,” Property owner Jim Davis said. “They’ve basically done nothing.”

Davis has appeared twice before the Austin City Council in recent months, as he and other property owners are urging the city of Austin to stick to a court order for the city to revise its assessment policies. The city was supposed to reassess the affected properties last October but have looked into assessment methods since then.

Davis said he will likely contact the State Auditor’s office over the case within the next two weeks and will pay a $200 fee to have the state Department of Administration issue a ruling on the issue. Such a ruling is technically nonbinding, but a judge would likely defer to the ruling in future court hearings.

Mower County District Judge Donald Rysavy overturned the $15,000-per-parcel assessments to three property owners in March of 2013. Those three owners held land that was part of the 209.5 parcels of land annexed into Austin in 2009 to get connected to the city’s sewer system.

Rysavy wrote in his ruling it was unreasonable to conclude the properties would benefit from the sewer project when those landowners showed their properties decreased in value every year since 2009. City workers completed the sewer project in 2011. Under state law, assessments must benefit a property in some way, assessment costs must be uniform across all affected properties, and local governing bodies can’t assess properties more than what they will benefit.

As a result of the ruling, the city of Austin withdrew assessments on 30 other contested properties in spring 2013 as well.

Yet city staff have worked with several homeowners in the Turtle Creek 1 neighborhood of Austin Township to annex 28 properties into the city. The council formally approved the annex late last year, and work is under way to hook those residents up to the city’s sewer and water grid.

Public Works Director Steven Lang gave a presentation on the Turtle Creek 1 projects last month, showing the sewer hookup would cost about $22,900 per property for the sewer project, and about $9,500 to install the water main in the neighborhood.

The project could include a potential street paving project for about $4,600 and a water service hookup for about $1,500 should residents wish to have that included.

The city is also pursuing Point Source Implementation Grant money for the sewer project, which could cover up to half of the sewer costs. City staff are also giving Turtle Creek 1 residents a little more leeway when it comes to hooking up to the city’s systems. Residents can either pay the assessment cost for planned sewer work all at once, over the next 15 years, or wait to hook up to the sewer system.

The two homes with compliant sewer systems can wait up to five years before hooking up to the city’s systems.

Non-compliant homes would have either until July 1, 2015 to hook up to the sewer system, whichever time period is longer. There are several homes the Mower County Environmental Service Department identified as an eminent public health threat. Those homes would have to hook up within 30 days.

Lang said the city is working on a sewer hookup fee for future projects. It would be an access charge for people who want to connect to the city’s sewer system.

“The sewer access charge is a lump sum fee that the property owner would need to pay at the time of the application,” Lang said.

City staff have yet to figure out how much the fee would cost, however. Lang said the access fee would likely be set by the fall.

Yet Davis and other former Lansing property owners spoke out against the sewer fee hookup cost last month, calling it just another means of assessment.


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