Sidewalk & Street Utilities

Here is something that I would like to pursue for the city of Rochester. Many things in government we pay for in taxes, these include police, fire, library, parks, and streets. In general we all benefit pretty equally from those 1st 4, but streets are different. Some of us live in ways that minimizes the impact of streets. If you live in an 80 unit apartment on 1 walkable acre, you require far less street infrastructure than if you live in a single family home on 5 acres. Here is the issue, if both units are valued at $350,000 you pay the same amount for taxes and street infrastructure. That is really not equitable. Further neither a non-profit on a neighborhood corner consuming 1/3 an acre and a “non-profit” on 10 acres pay any taxes at all, but one consumes far more infrastructure.

When it comes to funding a city, this creates huge issues for us. Even though different development patterns consume different amounts of resources we can not adjust taxation to reflect that. This is where street utilities come in. Currently the state does not allow street utilities, but hopefully that will change soon.

A street utility would allow us to charge all property owners a fair amount reflective of the costs of operating, maintaining, and eventually reconstructing street infrastructure. This is hugely important because the City of Rochester faces is huge unfunded liability after years of underfunding road maintenance. Our unfunded liability in streets is likely in the range of hundreds of millions to perhaps billions. Some staff members and I are working to better understand what the liability actually is.

A smaller version of this is a sidewalk utility. This is similar except it would address pedestrian / bicycle routes. Unlike street utilities, it is permitted by the state of Minnesota. We have asked public works staff to provide us information on creating this utility. There are 3 big advantages of this utility. 1) We would have a source of funds to bring sidewalks to underserved areas. 2) We would have funds to maintain and clear pedestrian / bicycle rotes. 3) When sidewalk panels need to be replaced we normally charge property owners thousands, in this case there would be no charge, but it would come from a utility fund.

My preference would be to charge people on the basis of how much street frontage they have. If you are in a senior housing complex with 500 units and 1000 feet of public frontage you would be paying a consistent rate for 2 feet of frontage. If you had a home with 300 feet of public frontage you would be paying the same rate for 300 feet.

Like with any system there are winners and losers. I believe the overall system would be much fairer and our ped system would be more complete.

  • “Winners” would be those facing large assessments, suffering from a lack of safe pedestrian facilities, or needing to use currently uncleared routes in the winter.
  • “Losers” would be some of the people that itemize their taxes and can’t deduct the fee. Also those that currently don’t pay a penny for their infrastructure because they are tax exempt.

The bottom line is that we face a crisis due to poor planning, land use, and maintenance of infrastructure. I believe that only when people are in a position to pay their fair share will we start realizing the impact of decisions we are making. Pedestrian facilities are about serving the needs of the 40% of people that can not or do not drive.

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