Are you aware that more than 60 individuals and small businesses have filed costly lawsuits that are currently pending against Grand Chute? This number of lawsuits is a strong indicator that residents have been “backed into a corner” by the actions of current Town leaders who have refused to listen to the concerns these people are experiencing.
What are these lawsuits about? They involve special assessments that have become out of control. How many families do you know who have $15,000 – $35,000 available to pay for Grand Chute special assessments? What small business can withstand a special assessment of $100,000 – $400,000? In either case, I am not aware of many. However, those are the amounts families and small businesses are currently and routinely being levied for special assessment projects. In order to pay these large amounts, families have had to refinance or sell their homes, reallocate money from retirement savings accounts, take on second jobs, and even become “unretired.”
Why are such high special assessments being levied? It is because long-time Town leaders have set a course of urbanizing the entire Town regardless of whether affected residents want these amenities or can afford them. (Urbanization typically involves the installation of water and sewer, storm sewers, curb and gutter, streetlights, walking trails and/or sidewalks.) These urbanization projects are being funded through special assessments on the property owners that have become dangerously high over time.
The rationale of current Town Board members to continue the practice of forced urbanization funded through special assessments is that “It wouldn’t be fair to previous residents to have paid a special assessment if we stop the practice now. After the Town has been completely urbanized, we can consider making a change.” This mindset not only demonstrates inflexibility, but it is also impractical. Previously, when special assessment amounts were more reasonable (e.g., $3,000 – $8,000), they may have been more affordable. However that is often not the case today. Instead of listening to the concerns of financially hard-pressed families and small businesses, our long-time leaders continue to force increasingly high special assessment amounts on residents and businesses without regard for reason and common sense.
Other communities, like Appleton and Neenah, have listened to their residents and responded by developing solutions to protect families and small businesses from impractical high special assessments. Appleton implemented an annual $20 Wheel Tax in 2015 and Neenah began a Transportation Assessment Replacement Fee in 2018, which is typically $23 dollars per household per year and somewhat higher for businesses.
The proceeds of these fees do not cover the entire cost of annual road reconstruction work. However, they do a better job of allocating cost according to roadway usage. Moreover, they protect families and businesses from experiencing devastating financial hardships. In both cities, the additional cost of road reconstruction is placed on their property tax bills where they are shared by all property owners of the community. These are but two options that our Town leaders have disregarded to-date that would help protect our families and businesses from dangerously high special assessments. Additional good ideas are out there. I want to hear yours. We can then form a course of action that both addresses our community needs and protects our families and businesses.
Urbanization and special assessments are closely related. Urbanization involves the installation of water and sewer, storm sewers, curb and gutter, streetlights, walking trails and/or sidewalks. Our Board has determined that our entire Town should be urbanized regardless of whether a road is an urban street or a rural road and regardless of whether the affected residents want urbanization or not. If the affected residents do not want urbanization, it is forced upon them, anyway, and they receive a special assessment levy, whether they can afford to pay it or not.
Our Town Board will urbanize unimproved stretches of roadway whenever a roadway needs to be reconstructed. From a timing standpoint, it makes sense to urbanize when a road is being reconstructed, but not so if a majority of affected residents do not want or need urbanization.
Affected residents are being locked out of the urbanization decision and then charged a special assessment amount that is often times unaffordable for many. These actions by other town leaders’ are backing families and small businesses into a financial corner. The result is a mounting number of costly lawsuits.
This practice of forcing urbanization projects on residents, accompanied by dangerously high special assessment invoices, must be stopped. Better solutions are available; finding them begins by listening to our residents. We cannot continue to drive families out of their homes or take valuable retirement funds, as we are doing at present.
Urbanization is only a benefit to families and businesses when it is wanted. If residents simply want their deteriorating road repaired and do not want urbanization, it should not be forced upon them.
In some cases, urbanization has been used as a means of fixing flooding problems related to development. When this is the case, it is an indication that the development projects involved were improperly planned. Families of existing neighborhoods should not be expected to fund the cost of planning mistakes made by the Town.
Water and Drainage
Because of inadequate planning, water and drainage issues have become an increasingly troublesome issue for residents. Nobody wants water in their basement or flooding in their yard. Yet, both of those conditions seem to be occurring more often as new subdivisions are developed. Presently, problems are being experienced by new residents, as well as existing residents. Better planning practices are needed.
This means several things for us:
- Some areas simply should not be developed as densely as developers would like, and which existing Town standards allow.
- Standards for filling and grading need to be developed and enforced. New subdivisions can no longer be allowed to be filled and graded at levels that are significantly higher than the grade of surrounding, existing residences. That means when new subdivisions are planned, it will be important to involve adjacent residents in the planning process to a greater extent than at present.
- When needed, storm water detention ponds need to be sized properly and constructed so as not to leak.
- Town and county drainage officials need to work better together to fix existing problems. Efforts to improve drainage must be coordinated. At present, they are not. Culvert sizes need to be better planned so that downstream culverts are larger, where needed, than up-stream culverts in order to eliminate downstream flooding.
Development is a double-edge sword. There is a wide array of costs associated with development that need to be evaluated carefully. For example, too often, I believe Town leaders have only looked at the revenue side of the equation when approving new subdivisions. As we continue to grow as a town, more and more services become necessary, whether it be additional schools, police and fire protection, roads, Town administrative personnel, and additional infrastructure and facilities. Therefore, we need to become more deliberate and take care when planning our future growth.
With a population of more than 23,000, Grand Chute is the largest township in Wisconsin. While that is an interesting statistic, does growth for the sake of growth reflect what we, as residents, want Grand Chute to be known for, or do we also value our rural character and moderate taxes?
It is my belief that “for the sake of growth”, new development is oftentimes being funded by existing property owners. Examples of this action include:
- Roadways are being damaged and destroyed by heavy trucks and equipment utilized in the development process, but developers are not asked to pay for those damages. Residents are being required to pay for this road damage when their roads need to be reconstructed. Town officials do marginally reduce special assessment levies in some areas where roads have been damaged due to development, but the amount does not cover the true cost of the damage.
- Urbanization is being forced upon residents, especially in agricultural areas where water, sewer, storm sewer services and other municipal infrastructure is not wanted or needed. This practice serves to reduce the cost to developers who will then develop a subdivision just beyond the recently urbanized area. When new development is subsidized by special assessments made on existing adjacent property owners, developers do not have to pay the true cost of extending municipal services to their site, which saves them money. Existing residents should not be taken advantage of in this manner.
I do not think anyone enjoys paying taxes, but property tax revenues are essential in order to provide the municipal services we want and need. There needs to be a continual balancing act as it concerns needed services and property taxes. Leadership on taxes, again, begins with listening to our taxpayers. My position is that we want our property tax level to be very moderate. We must be good stewards of our resources and very deliberate with our plans.
Jason Van Eperen for Grand Chute Chairperson
Paid for by Van Eperen for Grand Chute, Dave Van Eperen, Treasurer