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Amid citizen complaints, Cottage Grove to reexamine road maintenance program

Cottage Grove will study how the city completes large street maintenance projects after City Council members voted last week to nix a planned residential road rehabilitation project for at least a year.

Facing stiff resistance from homeowners whose neighborhood would have seen almost $3 million spent on street, curb and sewer upgrades had the proposed project gone forward, the council voted 4-0 to follow a council member's proposal to declare a moratorium on large-scale road improvement projects for at least 12 months. The intent is to allow the city's volunteer Public Works Commission to reexamine the process the city follows for planning and carrying out infrastructure maintenance projects.

Mayor Myron Bailey abstained from the vote because he lives in the neighborhood.

Public works commissioners -- in addition to some members of the Infrastructure Maintenance Task Force that drew up the city's road maintenance program that began in 1994 -- will scrutinize the city's policies on sealcoating, the cost sharing arrangement for road improvements that has benefitting properties paying 45 percent of the costs through assessments; and the 7 percent interest rate those property owners pay on those assessments if not paid in-full up front, among other issues.

Council member Justin Olsen proposed the delay and reevaluation, telling the council last week he believed there were issues that need to be addressed before the city continues with its annual pavement management projects.

"It's time to reevaluate our policy and our practice," he said later in an interview. "And you need to do that with things to make sure you're on the right track."

Public works commissioners will lay out the scope of the study at a meeting next month and will likely begin examining the program this spring, said Ryan Schroeder, the city's administrator.

Residents of the area that was to have been impacted by the summer's now-delayed road project -- an area roughly bound by Jamaica Avenue and Kingston Park, and 70th and 80th streets -- packed the council chambers at City Hall last week to protest the planned work. Almost 40 percent of the properties impacted had submitted written objections prior to the meeting, said City Administrator Ryan Schroeder, and roughly a dozen residents spoke out against the project.

Among their complaints were the timing of the project given the still-sluggish economy; assessments estimated to cost property owners more than $4,000; and the 7 percent interest rate charged to homeowners who chose to finance their assessments with the city over the allowed 15-year term.

It's the same complaint homeowners in last year's pavement management area had, and one council members then considered addressing before voting to move ahead with the proposed project. Now, officials will take a look at the program in a process that Schroeder estimated will take roughly six months.

"They'll reassess the whole process of what we're doing," Bailey said

Why 7 percent?

A major gripe from residents whose neighborhoods have been included in pavement management projects the past two years has been the 7 percent interest rate the city of Cottage Grove tacks onto assessment payments not made upfront.

On an assessment of $4,000 that can mean a few hundred extra dollars homeowners pay over the 15-year term for the roads rehabbed around their homes -- not welcome news when the city is getting closer to a 1 or 2 percent interest rate on the funds it borrows to pay for the projects.

City officials say the 7 percent interest rate is in place to ensure equity across pavement projects -- basically, to make sure one neighborhood doesn't pay a far higher amount in interest than another neighborhood as interest rates vary.

But many residents who would have been stuck with the 7 percent had the proposed 2012 project gone forward -- even as interest rates have ebbed to historic lows -- weren't satisfied with that reasoning.

City officials say they'll reexamine the assessment policy this year.