Ramsey shifts focus from fees to assessments for roads

The Ramsey City Council is scrapping the franchise fee discussion for now, in favor of re-addressing its special assessment policy for streets.

The city charter allows residential property owners to petition against a city-initiated project. If more than 50 percent of residential property owners sign a petition within 60 days of the council’s public hearing, the project is called off.

The council unanimously asked the charter commission to take another look at this language, with some suggesting an increase to the percentage of petitioners required to stop a project.

Around the same time, the council could modify the special assessment percentage share that abutting residential property owners pay.

An $8 monthly franchise fee on both electric and gas utility bills was seen as an alternative to special assessments that would likely exceed $6,000 for road reconstruction projects, according to Councilmember Randy Backous.

Not everyone on the council and charter commission supported this option and those that were open to it could not agree on what safeguards should be in place to prevent overreach by future councils.

“We all agree that the roads need to be fixed. The question is what’s the best way to pay for it,” Mayor Sarah Strommen said. “I suspect there’s many different views on that in our community and there are many of those different views reflected up here.”

During the course of an hour June 10, the council went from considering introduction of a charter amendment that could have ultimately ended up on the ballot to going back to the special assessments it has been trying to get rid of.

Debating the charter amendment

The charter commission’s proposed amendment included provisions such as requiring six out of seven members of the city council to approve the franchise fee ordinance, putting in revenue restrictions and dedicating this new revenue to “long-term street maintenance projects, including crack filling, seal coating and overlays, and street reconstruction projects.”

Strommen pleaded for ideas after four out of the seven councilmembers voted against introducing the ordinance and changing the “super majority” voting stipulation to five out of seven.

Councilmembers Mark Kuzma, John LeTourneau and Jason Tossey voted no both times for different reasons.

Kuzma and LeTourneau support franchise fees, but believe the charter commission’s proposed amendment was too restrictive and they even questioned the need for it.

“Our responsibility as council people is to look at what has to happen in the city, look at the alternatives and weigh what we feel is the best option for us,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma stated twice during the June 10 council meeting that franchise fee revenue should be used for roads, but the council should leave open the possibility of it being used for other emergency needs. He did not specify what this could entail.

Tossey disagreed.

“Madam Mayor, therein lies the problem, that a future council can just decide that it’s no longer just for roads,” he said. “That’s why there needs to be restrictions.”

Strommen clarified that the majority of the council decided long ago that franchise fees would be just for roads maintenance and nothing else, but acknowledged that Kuzma could have his own opinion.

Tossey said, “I’m opposed to franchise fees and I have been since day one.” At an Oct. 1, 2013 open house at city hall, he distributed a flyer stating that franchise fees are a “regressive tax” because the owners of a $100,000 of a $400,000 home would each pay $192 a year, assuming they both have electric and natural gas. Some residents pointed out that not everyone has both utilities.

The city had projected it could have received $1.7 million from franchise fees.

Nobody opposed having Ramsey residents vote on a charter amendment, but there was less appetite for asking the people of Ramsey on the ballot if they would even support franchise fees for roads. Backous said nobody would vote to raise taxes, which he said a franchise fee essentially is.

“We’d just be wasting our time,” Backous said.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]

  • Ryan Bakke

    Once again the decision makers in Ramsey refuse to stand up and make an unpopular yet important decision. Every single one of you ran for office blaming prior councils for spending money where they shouldn’t have instead of on maintaining what we had. Now it’s time for you all to put your money where your mouth is and what do you all do, kick the can down the road again. Road maintenance is a must people, most people don’t have issues paying taxes for what they should be paying taxes for so stop dragging your damn feet and find a way to fund road maintenance now. -Ryan Bakke

    • Jim Bendtsen

      I am on the Charter Commission. Finally the decision makers in Ramsey listened to the voices of reason on the Charter Commission. The City Charter actually does control some of the basic underpinnings of where and how the Council can obtain money, as it should. The current council majority tried to bypass the charter entirely and use franchise fees as a form of tax for purposes they were never intended to be used for and in addition, create a precedent to keep franchise fees in place as a never ending, parallel funding source, but not accounted for in the tax percentages. The franchise fee form of road funding is an extremely regressive form of tax, which hits everyone with less property value far more than they would pay in any form of tax tied to property value. I have suggested multiple times to allow the residents to vote on this form of taxation, because then they would actually have to pay attention and become informed on issue. Mr. Bakke deliberately leaves out a major problem with the council majority’s proposal. Most people don’t have a problem paying taxes for what they should be paying taxes for, but don’t expect to be charged very disproportionately to the benefit to their property values.

  • Ryan Bakke

    Understand your position, but with the historical controversy and lack of decisions being made to fund a basic government function like road maintenance shouldn’t this have all been vetted out years ago? The city spends millions on city buildings, vacant land, and developers but can’t make a decision on road maintenance funding? That’s a priority issue….and I don’t understand why people continue dragging there feet on this.
    My opinions come from a 30,000 foot view and I certainly don’t know the history, but maybe someone can enlighten me. Have property tax increases for the sole purpose of road maintenance ever been on a city ballot before? Are the current city levy rates higher in Ramsey than other comparable communities?