Building owners cry foul on city taxes

Published 9:45 am Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Councilors debate whether bill ought to be paid now

Concerns about the costs of the $4.6 million Broadway reconstruction project again took center stage Monday as a handful of downtown building owners questioned their assessments.

The owners — who have buildings on the south end near Main Street — asked the Albert Lea City Council why they would have to pay an assessment when the project was not yet completed. Broadway from William Street to Main Street remains closed to traffic, and contractors have a majority of the Fountain Lake Park to reconstruct.

Email newsletter signup

“Until the work is done and damages are assessed, I do not feel it is fair to assess us at this point,” said Kari Mason, owner of 242 S. Broadway.

They said some of their buildings also sustained damages during construction.

Mason said she thinks the steep assessments will force some building owners to close their doors because they will not be able to afford the costs.

“Most of us are not rich people,” she said. “We’re fixing up these buildings because we love them, not because we’re looking for a gain.”

The project, initiated to replace aging infrastructure, included reconstruction of the street, sidewalk and underground utilities on Broadway from Fountain Street to Main Street, along with the installation of amenities such as light poles, benches and flowerpots, and the reconstruction of Fountain Lake Park on North Broadway.

Though project costs came in higher than the engineer’s estimates, City Manager Chad Adams said building owners are not being charged more than what had initially been proposed. Building owners were assessed a portion of the costs for the street and sidewalk reconstruction.

Assessments covered about $800,000 of the total project cost, with the remainder of costs coming from city taxes, state bonding funds and the sewer and water funds, Adams said.

Lon Pogones, manager of the historic Bessesen Building, talked with building owner Susanne Crane about the damages they have seen to their building during the construction. He said there are many issues that need to be worked out before they should be asked to pay a portion of the project.

“The burden appears to be completely on the backs of already financially strapped citizens of the downtown,” he said, noting that he and Crane will not be able to move forward with some of the repairs they had planned to the building because of the assessment.

Roger Bakken, representing the American Legion Leo Carey Post 56, questioned the $30,000 assessment that the Legion faces. He said while he thinks the project has turned out well, he does not think the property value can support the assessment.

Third Ward Councilor George Marin questioned why the council was moving to adopt the final assessments if the job was not complete.

“If I had a contractor work on my home, I’d never consider paying him if the job was not done,” Marin said. “It’s not the way the real world operates, and I don’t think that’s the way government should operate.”

Marin described the Broadway project as “a done deal from the beginning.”

“I didn’t agree with it then, and I don’t agree with it now,” he said.

Al “Minnow” Brooks said he, too, thought it would be difficult for him to approve the payment when he didn’t agree with the scope of the project from the beginning.

In response to Marin and Brooks’ comments, Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen asked where the money would come from if it was not assessed.

He said the project has had input from community members on multiple occasions during the last year and has changed dramatically based off of that input.

He said he took offense to Marin’s comment that the project was going to happen no matter what.

“I do think that some of the blame being put on the council that they want to put people out of business is ludicrous,” Rasmussen said.

Second Ward Councilor Larry Baker motioned to table any action until the Oct. 28 meeting to give time for city staff to meet with a few of the building owners, but that motion failed 2-5.

The councilors then approved the assessments on a 5-2 vote, with Brooks and Marin voting against.

The assessments will be paid back over 15 years at 4.24 percent interest.