Utilities: City’s trendy way for residents to pay

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 3, 2003

When most people drive through town at night, they take notice of the buildings, the other cars and, if out, the people. Rarely do they think about what is letting them see all this so clearly &045; street lamps.

For years the city of Albert Lea has paid for street lights with taxes collected. But in the next few months, this may change.

According to City Manager Paul Sparks, the cost of maintaining street lamps has tripled over the last 15 years.

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Until three years ago, Alliant Energy rented street lamps to the city. The city would pay a monthly rate and the company would take care of maintenance, repairs and installation. But Sparks said the company dropped the program, leaving the city to pick up the cost of the work.

A few weeks ago, the city council decided to hire a consulting firm to get estimates for the cost of a street-lighting utility, which would assess the costs of their service through bills direct to residents. On top of a recent study to determine the feasibility of a utility for storm sewers, it signals a new approach to paying for city services.

According to the League of Minnesota Cities, a lobbying group for the state’s municipalities, nine cities in the state have street light utility fees.

In Ramsey, Minn., households pay $1.29 every three months for main intersection street-lighting and $8.50 per quarter for neighborhood street-lights.

James Norman, the city administrator for Ramsey, said that his city was looking for a way to charge non-taxable facilities, such as schools and courthouses, to chip in for city fees. He said that in regional centers such as Albert Lea, there are many more non-taxable facilities.

In Waconia, there is also a street light utility. The finance director, John Douville, said that by putting a utility on the service, they could make room in the general fund revenue. He said the state’s budget crunch will likely make more cities consider more utilities.

Citizens there pay $2.35 per month and businesses pay based on their property size.

Another utility considered has been a storm-sewer utility. The league of cities said 29 cities in the state have storm-sewer utility fees.

In 1984, Roseville decided maintenance fees for sewer repairs were rising too fast for their tax rates, so they instituted a sewer maintenance fee.

Today, a household pays $4.60 every three months for their sewer utility, according to the office of the Roseville mayor. Businesses pay based upon their property size.

In Albert Lea, Sparks’ estimated that street lights could cost citizens up to $3.60 per month and nearly the same for the storm sewer utility.

He said that the storm-sewer utility is needed for the same reason as the street light utility: the rising costs.

&uot;Our taxes can’t keep up with the costs,&uot; Sparks said.

He said changes in federal regulations on sewers have driven up the costs of maintaining and running a sewer system. In many states, including Wisconsin, storm sewer utilities have become

commonplace on city utility bills.

Though Sparks says the fee will not be a tax, the costs for sewers and street lights come from taxes now. If both utilities are passed by the city council, the tax money that went to those fees will be freed up to cover other budget areas that might otherwise be cut, Sparks said.

He said he knows it won’t be a nice bill to get in the mail, but said that the city has been pushed into considering the utilities.

&uot;Some people won’t be happy with that,&uot; he said. &uot;I understand that, but the state’s handling of the budget has put us here, along with the increasing costs of each.&uot;