The City of Milton Common Council approved on July 21 a project to install a sanitary sewer main along North Janesville Street, but also asked city staff to look at ways to help homeowners absorb city assessments associated with the project.
During a public hearing held in advance of the project’s approval, several residents affected by the assessments addressed council, expressing frustration with the scope of the project and the amounts being assessed to their properties.
The full cost of the project, which is 100% assessable to affected homeowners, is $353,439.
Eleven lots are affected, with assessments ranging from $53,214 to $16,132. Assessments are based on estimated lineal feet of sewer main to be constructed across each lot. The city will absorb a $6,704 charge for pipe placed within a city-owned right-of-way on Nelson Avenue.
Main to city limits
Before the public hearing opened, City Administrator Al Hulick noted that the project came out of a need to address a failing septic system on a property at 311 North Janesville St. The city looked at two options, including placing sanitary sewer main up to the affected property, or continuing the main to the city limits, making it available to existing or future homes that likely would one day require hookup to city service. After looking at costs and thinking about how best to serve future service needs, Hulick said the city opted to bring the main to the edge of town. With asset longevity in mind, Hulick said, the city opted to place a 10-inch main at a depth of 25 feet.
The proposed 940 feet of sewer main would make service available to 11 lots within he city, “and make sewer available to undeveloped lands to the north if development occurs at some point in the future,” Director of Public Works Howard Robinson wrote in a memo to council.
Assessments for property owners
Assessments to individual properties would be due to the city at the time of hookup, presumably when an existing septic system failed or the property owner requested hookup, Robinson wrote.
A resolution establishing assessments for property owners outlined a 5-year payment schedule, with the payment period beginning at the time of hookup. Assessments, as proposed, can be paid in installments and are subject to 5% interest and a $25 administration fee per each installment.
Pointing to stipulations within state statutes, Robinson wrote: “local municipalities have the ability to levy assessments upon property within the area of benefit.”
Several homeowners attending the public hearing took exception with the concept of “area of benefit,” noting that the proposed improvement was more for the benefit of future development and not their individual properties.
North Janesville Street landowner Pat Murphy said she believed city officials had been aware of a the failing septic system on Janesville Street since April, and discussions about the situation had been held in May, but homeowners affected by the decision to place the sewer main had not been notified until mid-July.
“It felt like we were being shut out of the process,” she said.
She said the septic system in question had not “failed,” but was “failing,” and was therefore not an emergency. She suggested more time could be given to developing a solution better supported by affected property owners.
“Here we are with a super crazy bid,” she said, adding that a third option might be to allow the homeowner with the failing septic system to simply replace that septic system.
North Janesville Street property owner Chuck Nelson said he owned three lots affected by assessments, giving him a total assessment of over $65,000.
“I don’t have it laying around and I can’t get that out of the sale of my property.
“There is a financial hardship going to all of us,” Nelson said, adding that he believed the primary intent of the project was to add a sewer line for future development. He said the burden of the cost of supplying future development with services should not be placed on the small number of lots.
Lucas Murphy, North Janesville Street, said, after conducting his own research, he concluded that the project as proposed was not “fair, equitable” or “reasonable.”
He said a 10-inch pipe for the main was oversized for a residential neighborhood and should instead be 8 inches. He said 25 feet below the surface was “extremely deep for a residential main,” and was, he believed, adding to the high cost of the project.
He said the city was installing a main for development and not for his block.
Resident Joshua Brunk, too, said he believed the expansion was designed to benefit future investors. He said his assessment of over $49,000 was a financial burden even with two professional incomes, calling it: “quite shocking.”
Frank Highland called the “enormous magnitude” of the project and its assessments, “beyond preposterous.”
Responding to comments made during the public hearing, councilmember Theresa Rusch said she apologized for anyone who felt left out of the process. She said upon learning of the failing septic system at 331 North Janesville St., council took steps to gain quotes for both projects, including placing 340 feet of sewer main to serve the single property and the larger project, serving 11 properties, as proposed. After receiving bids for the projects, council asked Robinson to contact the county to see if more time could be used to help homeowners prepare financially. The county, Rusch said, told Robinson that the project could not wait.
Councilmember Lynda Clark said that while she appreciated the responses from residents, she was not surprised by the reaction, because, she said: “every time we do something on Janesville Street we have residents that object.
“The thing you all need to realize is our job is to make sure our city infrastructure is set so we don’t have emergencies.”
She suggested that an accommodation might be made to the payment plan, but, she said: “I’m going to be a hard-hitter on this one.”
Explination of costs
City Engineer Mark Langer said that costs were higher because the construction was taking place in an established neighborhood.
“We have to work around things,” he said, such as existing gas and water lines, while also trying not to unnecessarily damage existing roadway. He said pushing the project out by two years would likely not lessen costs and future costs would likely increase.
Langer said it was “good practice” to build sewer mains with specs that would allow them to last as long as possible, adding that gravity feed systems are cheaper than lift stations. The larger pipe will provide more capacity for future service, he said.
Said Robinson: “We don’t want to put in something small and have to replace it in a few years.”
Councilmember Bill Wilson suggested staff look at “unbundling” costs, and while he was in support of completing the project using the larger main, he thought unbundling the costs could help distribute assessment costs more fairly.
Clark suggested the payment period could be extended from five years to eight.
Finance Director Dan Nelson said he did not have costs associated with 8-inch piping and other specs that would allow him to unbundle associated costs of the project. He suggested those specs could be brought back at a future meeting.
Robinson said council could approve the project without final assessments, allowing work to commence.
Council approved the project as proposed with the 10-inch main placed at 25 feet and asked staff to return at a future meeting with costs based on an 8-inch main placed at a “normal depth for a subdivision.”
Nelson said he would figure out the cost of the project based on the new specs with the understanding that those costs would be assessed to property owners on Janesville Street and costs beyond that would be assumed by the city’s utility.
The motion passed 5-1 with Clark voting against the measure.