Neighbors taking issue with special assessments

APPLETON -  Imagine getting a bill from the city for thousands of dollars to improve a road.  It’s a common practice called a special assessment.

But now some Appleton homeowners are fighting that practice.

The city says special assessments are just another cost of being a homeowner, but those homeowners say the cost is too great a burden to bear.

Jane Marichal and Cindy Bettendorf are going door to door on John Street.  They’re talking to their neighbors about special assessments and putting up signs protesting the practice, with large dollar amounts on them, some as high as $13,000

The numbers are what each neighbor might have to pay the city to help reconstruct and repave part of the street in 2015 and 2016.  That’s a special assessment, a cost outside of taxes.

“A lot of people have been affected really hard by the last 5 years, 6 years by the recession,” said Marichal.

“What about the single-parent families?  Or, you know, retired people who are living on a fixed income?” asked Bettendorf.

The neighbors say it would be easier on everyone if the costs were spread across city property taxes and utility costs.

The numbers on the signs are estimates at this point.

“Each year, actually, the council approves the special assessment policy.  Those are based on what the policy is today and not the future,” explained Paula Vandehey, director of Appleton’s public works department.

The assessments aren’t unusual.  Vandehey says 2,000 – 3,000 such bills go out each year.

She says the city offers homeowners a five-year payment plan to help pay off the cost.

But common council is considering changes to that policy, possibly phasing out special assessments.  Although council members say that would require a very drastic change.

“We have to look a the cost as it’s spread across all taxpayers and what that is really going to mean,” explained Alderperson Kathy Plank.

Another view is that the bright side of special assessments is tax exempt properties like churches and schools pay their share.

“If we go and reverse that decision, now all the taxpayers will pick up the non-profits, the tax-exempt properties,” explained Alderperson Curt Konetzke.

Still Marichal told us she hopes by educating her neighbors, maybe there will be a change.  Even if she has to pay her special assessment first.

“If they changed it we would still end up paying the higher property tax and we’re willing to do that,” said Marichal.

Marichal also started a Facebook page called No Special Assessments Appleton to spread the word.

The common council is expected to discuss the special assessment policy in May.

Affected homeowners on John Street will be invited to meetings with the city in the next year to discuss the finalized plans.  At this point, Vandehey says there isn’t even a design plan for the street.

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