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Preliminary assessments for west side improvement project frustrating for local homeowners

MORRIS - Residents from the west side of Morris expressed frustration to the Morris City Council on Tuesday about a proposed change to the city assessment policy that would have them pick up more of the cost of a proposed street improvement project planned for 2013.

The estimated $3.4 million street improvement project, although not yet official, would affect all residents living on West 9th, 10th, and 11th Streets between Pacific Avenue and Park Avenue and residents of Idaho Avenue and Nevada Avenue between West 9th and Park Avenue.

The planned road reconstruction project will include reconstructing streets and repairing or replacing water mains, sanitary sewer lines, storm sewers, curb and gutter and sidewalks.

Morris City Manager Blaine Hill explained that some of the infrastructure in the area was put in during the 1920s, and the roads are in conditions that are too poor to be patched.

City Engineer Jeff Kuhn explained that, if the project should go through, construction would begin on the 8th Street boundary and continue down 9th Street and onward. City Engineer Inspector Jay Fier said that bidding would begin in late winter or early spring, and if the bids were accepted, construction would begin in late April or early May 2013 and likely last until October or November.

The project also marks the first time the city plans to assess residents for 75 percent of the cost of pavement, a change to the city's assessment policy. For the past 30 years or so, said Hill, the city has not assessed property owners for the cost of pavement which has resulted in the city getting behind on road construction and maintenance.

For example, in previous improvement projects, side avenues were not worked on because the city could not afford it, Hill said.

"The bottom line is that we're trying to finance these projects on the backs of the general city property tax payers," said Hill. "I can tell you that's not the way it's done in other places. And I can tell you if we continue to do it this way, my recommendation is that we not do this project. It's going to raise property taxes by about 15 percent on property tax payers in Morris and we can't do that."

Under the proposal, the city will assess homeowners 75 percent of the cost of pavement, water, and sanitary sewer. The city will assess 100 of the cost of curbs, gutters and sidewalks, and 50 percent of storm sewers (although this may be raised to 75 percent as well).

A number of property owners at the public hearing objected to the change in assessment policy, saying that it was not fair they had been paying for past improvement projects but would be asked to pick up more for this project.

Property owner Mike Sax said that to remain fair, the city should continue to use the same assessment model as in the past.

"If that means you raise taxes on everybody in the city to do it, that's what you do because that's what you've done in the past," he said.

Assessment estimates that went out to affected property owners showed that assessments on a 50-foot lot would likely be between $10,000 and $15,000. However, Hill said construction bids will likely come in at 20 to 30 percent less, because local contractors are looking for work.

In order for a city to do an improvement project, an appraisal is done to see if the improvement is beneficial to property owners. Hill said that the certified appraiser's report showed the affected property values would be raised by $7,000 to $11,000.

Sax suggested money be used out of the franchise fund to help finance the project, but Hill said that maintenance is paid for by the city and reconstruction is paid for by the owners and added if money was used out of the franchise fund, maintenance on other roads could not be afforded.

Other citizens had more specific questions. Frank Nelson asked about access after construction had been done for the day, as the construction would run from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Kuhn said that drivable access would likely be available after 7 p.m., as work would be backfilled at the end of the workday.

At the end of the hearing, Council members Bill Storck and Jeff Miller stressed that nothing was set in stone and that when the construction bids come in is when the decision to go forward or cancel the project will be made.

Storck also reminded everyone that City Council meetings are twice a month, open to all.

Other business

• The council approved a recommendation from the Tourism Board for a web hosting service for the tourism website.

• The council approved purchasing a new police squad car.

• The council voted 3-1 to postpone demolishing the greenhouses behind Morris Floral until May 1, 2013. Morris Mayor Sheldon Giese, who brought forward the motion, said that the owners were making progress cleaning up the property and that the city was "not in the business to wreck" buildings.

Council member Bill Storck, the dissenting vote, said that the city needed to address complaints about property when they came in.

The council set a meeting to canvas the general election results for Friday, Nov. 9 at 12:00 p.m.