Wadena residents pack City Council chambers to vent frustration over utility assessments
City Engineer Phil Martin outlined the project scope and costs at the start of the hearing, attendees voiced their opinions following his explanation of the project.
WADENA — The first Wadena City Council meeting of the year is typically filled with things like swearing in new and newly reelected council members, discussing committee assignments, and designating things like official city depositories, official city newspapers and annual election polling places.
All of those things happened as scheduled on Monday, Jan. 9, but as evidenced by the packed council chambers, there was also at least one item on the agenda that was of more than casual interest. In this case, it was a public hearing about assessments for the utility extension project on Greenwood Avenue Northwest and Third Street Northwest, which was done in connection with the move of Tri-County Health Care (TCHC) into its new hospital facilities.
City Engineer Phil Martin outlined the project scope and costs at the start of the hearing, and said that there would be an opportunity for the public to speak afterward — but they must limit their remarks to three minutes per person.
"As this evolved this took on a new flavor, in that Greenwood Avenue became not a city road anymore, but got taken over by Wadena County," Miller said. "And on top of that, with the location of the new hospital facility, 11th Street became County Road 92 along with Greenwood Avenue, and that all got improved to the level you've seen today."
After the city annexed the hospital land and agreed to provide water and sewer, as requested, it was discovered that there was one block of Third Street, between Greenwood and Fir, that had not had its water and sewer lines updated when the city did similar improvements to other streets on the northwest end of the city. Since the road was going to be torn up anyway, the decision was made to put in a new sewer, water main and service lines, which Miller called "a little side project inside a larger project."
The base project, Miller said, was to provide a sanitary sewer hookup between that facility and the city, "and to do that we had to put a new sanitary sewer collection main in Greenwood, and a new lift station on the curb. We also had to upsize the existing sanitary sewer pipe in Third Street between Greenwood and two blocks south, because that wasn't large enough for the flow that was coming from the hospital, as well as what could come from those neighborhoods up there if they were added on, as well as what potentially could come from the hospital with some of its long-term development plans. ... The whole point being, the system's set up to serve that entire area."
Miller added, "The water main was extended along Greenwood, around the hospital, down the county road and along Highway 10 to tie into the existing water main that the city had. The purpose there is to provide a loop instead of dead-ending the line out there."
With the hospital thus able to get water via both ends of the loop, it will receive a better, more consistent water supply, he said.
Following Miller's presentation, nine local residents came forward to express their dissatisfaction with the assessments, and a letter to the council was presented as well. Signed by 18 local residents, the letter detailed the residents' opposition to the project, stating, "At a recent public meeting in the council chambers, the entire City Council and Mayor made the statement several times that no assessments would be made to our property to aid the construction of the new hospital, located west of Wadena, in Otter Tail County. A Wadena County representative was also there, and in agreement with those statements. To assess our properties at $7,000 per lot was not at any time brought before we landowners. We have been in contact with attorneys who would have no problem representing our entire group of landowners. We strongly suggest that you rethink this proposal and give some thought to what the City Council says... and what the City Council does."
Many of the people who stood up to speak at the meeting had signed that letter.
Linda Johnson, who lives on Fir Avenue, spoke first, noting that her home was purchased 29 years ago. "I'm 73 years old," she said. "I'm retired, and I'm disabled. There's no way I can pay this tax. And it's not fair."
She said that because the city had "made a mistake" and didn't replace the water and sewer on that block years ago, she didn't see why she should be assessed for it when it wasn't her mistake.
Edward Waln, who lives on Elm Avenue, said that his family had paid their assessments in the past, "no problem — but this is a different case. The hospital wanted this project. We were told this is a hospital project. ... Now we've found out, it needs this loop to get that (service), that's why they're going down Greenwood. But this was a hospital project. You guys told us this when we attended meetings here earlier. The whole issue here is, you can't tell us one thing and do another.
"(Mayor) George Deiss is a friend of mine," he continued. "I have coffee with him most mornings at the Boondocks. I sit there with Bruce Brown, I sit there with Myron Winkleman, I sit there with John Aho. There's six of us. I like George. But he tells me that 'Ed, this is not going to cost you guys out there along Greenwood.' Something came up along the line where what you told us is not true. That's why we're getting assessed $7,000."
He read from the city's letter to him, saying his assessment was going to be more than $6,900, and said that his son T.J. had gotten a similar letter — after receiving a text from Councilman Wade Miller, stating, "There won't be any assessments to property owners. The hospital is paying for the expansion."
"That is our whole point here," Waln said. "That's all I've got to say."
Tim Flanigan, who owns a trucking company on Ash Avenue, said that the project "wrecked my lot all summer long. Three months, couldn't use it, nobody could come in, cost me about $350,000 in sales. I get no benefit out of this. ... I guess I'm wondering why I'm being assessed."
Paul Hockert, who has a warehouse/cold storage facility on Greenwood Avenue, said that the only utility service they receive is electric — yet they are being assessed for water and sanitary sewer improvements.
"It was told to us that if we did not hook up (to water and sanitary service), the lines would be brought to the property, but if you didn't hook up, you didn't have to be assessed for them," he said. "Down the road, if a person would build a house or business that needed those utilities, they would pay. I gotta say, we've got a natural gas line running out in front, there are a few that are tapped off on that, and they're paying. We have no need for natural gas, it's cold storage. It's a warehouse. We don't need sewer and water, and I think the biggest problem we have with the whole situation is, it was told to us, no assessments unless you tie into it. It's for the future."
"Telling an untruth is telling a lie," said an unidentified audience member after Hockert had spoken.
After all of the members of the public had spoken, and the hearing was closed, the council members discussed the resolution that would finalize the assessments. City Administrator Kim Schroeder noted that, in light of all the letters received by the city in relation to this project, the council had indicated they might be willing to consider extending the length of time that residents had to repay the assessments. The council did vote, 3-1 (Councilman Wade Miller was absent due to illness), in favor of extending the length of time to repay the assessments from 10 to 15 years. Assessments may also be deferred up to 15 years for people who are 65 years of age or older, living on a disability, or are a military veteran.