The Mandan City Commission recently designated $1.5 million in sales tax dollars toward a street improvement project on the south side of town that's being protested by numerous landowners due to the high special assessments being proposed.
Estimated to cost more than $7 million, the Southside Street Improvement Project includes the reconstruction of roadways, repaving of alleys, curb and gutter repairs, sidewalk improvements to ensure ADA compliance, storm sewer improvements and extension of the sanitary sewer.
Water main improvements are included in the project but will not be assessed because the city's utility fund will cover the $350,000 bill. The replacement of streetlights was considered, too, but is not in the estimate.
“The size of this project is big. Believe me, our eyes were as wide open as everybody here in the audience when we saw the numbers,” Mayor Tim Helbling said during a public hearing on Dec. 18. “We felt we needed to try and buy this down. We need to find a way … to make the project go forward and to ease the burden on everyone in that project area.”
The proposed special assessment district lies roughly within the confines of First Avenue Southwest to 13th Avenue Southwest and First Street Southwest to Seventh Street Southwest. In addition to residential property, the district contains land owned by the city, school district, railroad, water resource district and park district, with the latter owning 54 percent.
Today is the deadline for those whose property lies within the proposed special assessment district have to submit a letter of protest. If more than 50 percent of the area — not owners — protests, the project can't legally proceed.
Richard Leingang, representing his elderly in-laws who live at 201 Sixth Ave. S.W., was among those who provided testimony at the two-hour public hearing.
“These people are on a limited income, less than $20,000 a year,” he said, noting the couple's specials are estimated at more than $21,000. “They're proud people .... They don't know where they're going to get this money from.”
Denny Hildebrand, who lives at 511 Ninth Ave. S.W., said the road adjacent to his property has been damaged by heavy equipment traveling to the nearby city shop, and his curb and gutter has been torn up by city plows and trucks.
“There's destruction that's been done by the city itself,” he said. “I appreciate the $1.5 million, but I think you should try to do a little more.”
Vern Herman, who lives at 211 Eighth Ave. S.W. and is facing a $21,000 assessment, said he was planning to protest the project, but the public hearing caused him to have a change of heart.
“Twenty-one thousand dollars is a new Ice Castle fish house to me. That's a lot of money,” he said. “But our streets need it. The work needs to be done. I don't want to pay $21,000 in special assessments, but if you delay it, it's going to get worse.”
The streets in the neighborhood are more than 20 years old, according to Jerod Klabunde, Moore Engineering senior project manager.
“These asphalt pavement roads generally have a life expectancy of about 20 years and we've surpassed that in this neighborhood,” he said. “We've reached a 30-year life and that's extremely good for our North Dakota climate and how asphalts normally perform.”
Mandan Parks & Recreation Director Cole Higlin, who attended the hearing, said the park district does not want to be “at fault” for executing the project due to owning 54 percent of the land.
“We have stated we do not want to force this,” he said. “But if no one protests it and the numbers justify majority rules and they want this assessment, then we are probably not going to protest it.”
The $1.5 million the commission designated will pay for about 20 percent of the total project, and if the Operation Prairie Dog bill passes this legislative session, Helbling said he'd like to see it used as the funding mechanism, rather than the city's sales tax.
To further cut costs, the commission is considering removing the alley work and storm sewer improvements from the project. However, City Engineer Justin Froseth does not recommend the latter.
“We don't have confidence that our streets will last as long as they're designed for without the storm sewer system being part of this project,” he said.
The commission plans to tabulate the protests at its meeting Tuesday and will decide whether or not the project, as it stands, will proceed. If it does, construction is expected to begin in the spring. If the project is protested out, it's back to the drawing board, according to Helbling.