Editorial: Belfield street assessments should have been handled better

Belfield’s streets need to be fixed. There’s no doubt about that. Complaint after complaint is heaped on the city by both residents and visitors regarding the state of its streets, and clearly something must soon be done. A special assessment to property owners, offset by oil-impact “surge” funding dollars, is the most logical way to do this.

However, considering the individual price tag associated with these improvements, it’s safe to say Belfield leaders went about informing property owners the wrong way.

When your citizens stand to pay thousands of dollars in extra taxes over an undetermined length of time for a city infrastructure project, it’s best to involve them as much as possible — not to hold a couple meetings and then send them a bill eight months later.

To their credit, Belfield city leaders went about this mostly by the book. They talked about the potential assessments in public meetings, placed public notices and heard little feedback from residents about the issue. In their mind, citizens were on board with the project, especially when most Belfield residents stood in favor of special assessments to repair streets when the matter was brought up during a city council meeting in September 2014, and few protested the proposed special assessments.

Then they got their bills earlier this month.

The project, which also would include water line improvements, is expected to cost roughly $8.86 million, with $3.4 million paid for through the use of the city’s surge funding allocated to oil-impacted areas. That leaves Belfield property owners with a $5.46 million tab. Some residents could be stuck with special assessments in the tens of thousands of dollars, and many of those people say they can’t afford to pay those bills. Others say they want to move because of it, but are afraid no one will buy their property due to the specials placed on it.

Some residents, however, are most upset that they were never notified about how much the project would cost after Belfield received its surge funding and before special assessment letters were mailed in early August. They point to a public meeting in December where it was said the city would “determine the next course of action” after learning how much oil tax money the Legislature would allocate them after the surge funding bill was passed in late February.

At that point, the city should have began holding further public input meetings to figure out how to proceed with the street projects. That, residents allege, never happened. Citizens, too, should have been watchful over their city government and pestered their leaders by asking “How much is this going to cost me?”

Belfield, like most areas in western North Dakota, is not inhabited by the affluent. Many of its residents are average people working average jobs or running small businesses and earning average paychecks. A special tax assessment of more than $30,000 — a fairly average amount for owners who have multiple lots in one of Belfield’s four districts — may be nearly impossible to stomach. Even smaller assessments of a few thousand dollars for those on fi xed incomes or tight budgets — many of whom have likely already paid for property they live on — seems like a lot, regardless of how many years the payments are spread out over, or what the interest rate is.

Belfield needs to continue to talk about this project before it moves forward. Attention must soon be paid to its streets and water lines, and citizens must to be vocal about being involved in every step of that process from here on out.

Belfield needs new streets and it needs new water lines. That, we can all agree on. But there must be a better way to go about paying for it than to tax residents out of their homes.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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