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Bismarck City Commission gets look at street utility fee plan

Bismarck City Commission gets look at street utility fee plan

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The Bismarck City Commission got a glimpse of what a replacement for street maintenance special assessments could look like at its meeting Tuesday.

But the commission can't institute the proposed plan without help from the 2021 Legislature.

A proposed street utility fee could replace street maintenance special assessments.

The city has been looking at how it funds infrastructure for several years, including a replacement for special assessments, City Administrator Keith Hunke told the commission Tuesday. A combined infrastructure and special assessment task force recommended the city look at a street utility fee in 2018. Hunke told the Tribune that some feedback from the task force favored a monthly fee that could be more easily managed. 

The city contracted with consulting firm AE2S Nexus in 2020 to determine how a street utility fee would work.

The proposed plan creates a tiered fee structure in two categories -- residential and commercial, which would include mutli-family residential properties. The three residential fee tiers are split by parcel square foot, with larger parcels weighted more heavily and paying higher fees. Commercial properties are split into tiers based on how much traffic the property generates and parcel size. Multi-family properties have their own tier, with a fee that would be assessed per unit.

Using traffic data to determine the street utility fee can help explain why different properties are being charged different rates, AE2S consultant Brent Bogar said.

"A grocery store generates more trips than a dentist office," he told the Tribune.

The fee structure presented Tuesday is a basic framework that the commission can modify, Bogar said. It is set up so the fees help pay off some existing special assessment debt along with current street maintenance. The fee would not replace other types of special assessments, such as those levied for storm water infrastructure improvements.

"This is a working framework," Mayor Steve Bakken said Tuesday. "There's a lot of things at this table that need to be discussed ... This is something that still at the end of the day needs to go in front of our voters."

However, the city cannot put a street utility fee in front of voters due to a 2017 law limiting some local governments' authority to levy taxes.

A bill in the 2019 legislative session would have allowed cities and counties to include an infrastructure tax on utility bills rather than levy special assessments. Instead, the bill commissioned a study on special assessments during the interim session. The taxation committee, which reviewed the study, did not make any recommendations.

The city plans to support similar legislation during the 2021 session. Hunke told the Tribune it was not clear which legislators would sponsor the bill. The issue was discussed during a meeting between local legislators and Bismarck commissioners and staff late last year.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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