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Special—but fair? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 January 2014 16:35

A city’s right to levy special assessments is undisputed, but there is plenty of dispute over the fairness of who gets assessed

There is a good reason special assessments for public improvements are used in all 50 states under powers granted by constitutions or legislation: It is patently fair to charge some of the cost of roads and other projects to landowners who get a special benefit from the improvements.

    But there is also a good reason special assessments are frequently challenged in court: Determining the value or even the existence of special benefits is a subjective exercise that invites overreach by taxing authorities.

    A judge articulated the crux of the matter in a Wisconsin case that has served as precedent since 1924: “If the amount of the special assessment exceeds the amount of the benefits there is a taking of private property without due process of law.”
  
 The City of Port Washington will be in court soon defending special assessments for improvements on Highway 33 and Highway LL against claims that landowners were assessed more than the value of any benefits they received.

    Eleven property owners filed a lawsuit on Dec. 20 challenging a total of $115,279 in special assessments, including the landowners’ share of 25% of the cost of one lane of the new four-lane Highway 33.

    The plaintiffs, which include both private citizens and businesses, base their legal action on a number of contentions, including an assertion that the city did not follow state statutes in levying the assessments, but essentially the suit comes down to the argument that they received no special benefit from the road work.

    A variety of legal arcana will come into play in parsing those claims, but one element of the case should be obvious to any observer. In fact, it ought to be Exhibit A in the plaintiffs’ case. It is the Ray Last property and the apparent absurdity of the notion that it somehow benefitted from the road construction.


    Last has lived on the property, located along Highway 33 a short distance west of the Highway LL intersection, for decades in a house that was set back from the former two-lane highway in a wooded yard. Widening the road claimed most of Last’s front yard and the trees that grew on it, and the new four-lane highway now passes within a few feet of the house’s front door. A masonry wall topped by a steel fence that looks as though it would be at home in a military installation now stands between the road and house.

    For this “benefit,” Last received a bill from the city for  $11,298.

    It’s likely most people seeing the effect of the road project on the Last property, including members of the driving public that benefitted most from the highway improvements and are now able to whiz past the front door of the house on a new, wide, safe highway, would agree that the project was detrimental rather beneficial to the property owner.

    It remains to be seen whether the road project’s obvious impact on the Last property taints the city’s defense that the assessments, in the words of the Fond du Lac attorney retained by the city, “fairly recognize the specific benefits received by these property owners.” But the city had fair warning that it could end up in court. When the assessments were proposed, Last and other owners argued that the road work would do more harm than good to their properties.

     In special assessments, municipalities have necessary tools to use in financing public improvements that are both well grounded in the law and very powerful, which only adds to imperative to apply them fairly. If the property owners’ lawsuit runs its course, the court will tell us whether that was the case with the Highway 33/LL assessments.


 
A better idea for road funding PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 31 December 2013 15:39

Wisconsin has a financial mountain to climb to pay for maintaining and building roads; an alternative to raising the hated gas tax is needed

It’s deja vu all over again for Mark Gottlieb, the Port Washington resident and former mayor who is the state’s transportation secretary. In January 2013, the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, with Gottlieb as chairman, was tasked with finding ways to raise the billions of dollars needed to maintain and build roads in Wisconsin. A year later, Gottlieb has been ordered by the governor to, that’s right, find ways to raise the billions of dollars needed to maintain and build roads in Wisconsin.

    The commission did a pretty good job, producing revenue-generating recommendations – chiefly increasing the gas tax and charging a mileage fee – that would cover the current highway fund deficit and pay for future road work. But nothing came of its efforts.

    The gas tax is essentially all that’s needed to pay for highways. It can be set at whatever level is needed to cover highway costs. It is somewhat fair in that it charges highway costs to highway users, though owners of hybrid or electric vehicles that use little or no gasoline or diesel fuel get a break. (Some would argue it’s a deserved break.) But the gas tax has two problems that will probably prove fatal to any attempt to increase it in Wisconsin.

    The first is that it’s a tax. Taxes are politically incorrect these days. A whole political class is devoted to driving a stake into the heart of anything called a tax.

    The second problem is that there seems to be nothing Americans detest more than high gasoline prices. Increasing the gas tax would increase the price of gasoline, thus infuriate gasoline buyers. It’s sometimes said as a joke that Americans seem to think they have a constitutional right to cheap gas, but the idea is not so far-fetched. If gas prices in the U.S. were set anywhere near what Europeans pay for their heavily taxed fuel, rebellion in the streets, not to mention in polling places, would be assured.

    Many states, as well as the federal government, are facing the highway revenue problem. There is a lot of discussion about highway tolls and fees based on miles driven. Some proposals for the latter suggest monitoring miles driven by GPS tracking. Label that one the creepy Big Brother alternative.

    Michael E. Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas, has a better idea. He proposes charging a “ton mile” fee based on the weight of the vehicle and the number of miles driven. It would result in all vehicle owners paying their fair share of the cost of repairing road damage, he claims.

    The amount paid for each vehicle would be determined by an annual odometer reading (perhaps during emissions inspections or reported by owners) and using manufacturer’s specifications to determine the vehicle weight.

    In an essay published in the New York Times, Webber argues that the ton mile method would be fairer than the gas tax, would ensure that owners of electric vehicles paid their share of road costs and would encourage buying smaller vehicles and driving fewer miles, resulting in less damage to roads and reduced air pollution.

    For surefire appeal, the professor posits that the ton mile charge could eliminate gas taxes. Vehicle owners would still be required to pay for highways, of course, but at least it wouldn’t be by means of a hated tax, a concept even the tea party might love. Label this one the feel-good alternative.

    Gottlieb should look into it. A gas tax big enough to get Wisconsin out of its highway funding hole is not going fly. If he doesn’t come up with something that will, he will likely be facing more deja vu down the road in a year or so.





 
Corwin “Bud” Miser PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 24 December 2013 15:09

Corwin “Bud” Miser  died Thursday, Dec. 19, at Harbor Cove in Port Washington. He was 90.

    A funeral service with military honors for Mr. Miser was held Monday, Dec. 23, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Port Washington. The Rev. John Klieve officiated.

    Burial was in Union Cemetery, Port Washington.

    Memorials to Bethesda Lutheran Home or St. John’s Lutheran Church are suggested.

    Funeral arrangements were handled through Eernisse Funeral Home, Port Washington.

 
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