As the spring temperatures melted snow outside, tempers inside Isanti City Hall were heating up Wednesday as the Isanti City Council voted on a pair of controversial items.
In the regular meeting on March 16, the council considered a street and sewer improvement project and also the forced annexations of several Isanti Township properties before a packed chamber.
The tone was set early in the meeting when Clark Johnson, one of the property owners on the list of possible annexations, read a letter to the council explaining his independence from city services and voicing his frustration with the proposal.
In his letter Johnson stated he had two wells on his property and a septic system he expects will function until 2044. Johnson said he didn’t see why he should be forced to accept city services, but he said his greatest frustration was that he had not been notified when city staff began to research the issue.
Mayor George Wimmer responded that the council has no authority to officially notify people about issues that it hasn’t given direction on in a meeting.
Wimmer agreed each property should be looked at individually, and said if the council decided to move forward with the process each affected resident, as well as residents adjacent to the affected property, would be notified promptly.
Johnson’s interjections during Wimmer’s response prompted Wimmer to bang his gavel for the first time in his three terms as mayor.
The issue of annexation was first explored by city administration in 2008, but after discussion the council decided to postpone the decision. The option was revived recently as a cost saving measure, since the properties may receive services from the city but pay taxes to the township.
Under an agreement with the township the city has the right to annex properties that are completely enclosed by city streets, which describes the 23 properties on the list.
When the item came up for discussion in the March 16 meeting, Don Hansen, an Isanti Township Supervisor, addressed the council with his concerns.
Hansen said in his view most of the people had been surrounded by city roads because of business development, not by any wish of the residents, and he said it would be unfair to force the people into the city because of that fact.
He proposed instead the city and township negotiate a cost-sharing agreement for funding services for the properties, a suggestion the council welcomed.
“It’s not about money, it’s about the township,” Hansen said. “It’s about the people.”
After a unanimous vote to skip annexations in favor of billing the township for services, Councilor Jim Kennedy drew applause from attendees when he declared, “I don’t believe in forced annexation anyway.”
Wimmer told the NEWS on Monday that issues such as annexation can cause alarm when they appear on a meeting agenda, but he said the council discusses everything in a public context, adding that recent rumors of secret meetings were completely fabricated.
Wimmer said the object of the proposed annexations was not expanding the city, but rather ensuring that services like zoning and police protection are duly paid for—an issue he said had been satisfactorily resolved.
“I think it worked out very well,” Wimmer said.
According to Clark Johnson, the reason the matter created so much tension was because the residents involved felt they had no say in what happened, a problem that Johnson said is inherit to Minnesota laws on forced annexation.
Johnson said under different circumstances he might agree to have his property annexed, but he said in this context he did not approve and was frustrated by the lack of notification. “I am not an enemy of the mayor’s,” Johnson said. “I am saying people need to be represented.”
Sewer repairs hit a temporary clog
The other item that drew large attendance was a public hearing on the proposed 2011 street and sewer repairs.
Scheduled repairs would include replacement of the present clay sewers and street repaving on portions of 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th avenues SW, as well Broadway and Elizabeth streets SW.
The repairs are part of an ongoing improvement project that was put on hiatus in 2008. The work would replace the last clay sewers in Isanti.
City Engineer Brad DeWolf explained the project had been scaled back from the original plans in order to preserve the character of the neighborhood. In the latest plans the width of the roads would not be expanded and proposed sidewalks will be dropped, minimizing the number of trees that will be removed.
DeWolf said the project was important to complete because of drainage issues brought on by the outdated sewers, particularly on the 4th Avenue stretch. DeWolf pointed out that drainage deficiencies aggravated issues with the road surface quality.
Several homeowners made suggestions during the forum, including one that the improvements be put to a referendum given the price tag in excess of $1.2 million dollars. Most comments touched on the assessments that property owners would be billed, which are budgeted to cover around one quarter of the total cost.
In response to a suggestion that street and sewer repairs be taxed evenly throughout the city since they did nothing to raise home values, Wimmer said the assessment policy ought to be reviewed, but not until after the project had been completed.
“If we kind of give these last people a break, then that doesn’t seem to be fair to those who have paid a bigger share of that burden,” Wimmer said.
It was also suggested the repairs to 4th Avenue be made as scheduled, but given the financial hardships facing the city and many of the homeowners the rest of the project be delayed until the economy improves.
Wimmer and Councilor Ross Lorinser both countered that the project had already been delayed three years, and they pointed out there is rarely a comfortable time to undertake big projects. “If the economy miraculously rebounds in three years, the costs are going to even be higher,” Lorinser said.
The council voted 3-2 in favor of making the improvements as planned, but because issues involving assessments require a super majority of 4-1 or more, the project will be voted on again in the April 5 meeting.