Engineer Brett Grabau from Stantec, the city's engineering firm, attended the Harmony City Council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, to answer questions regarding a proposed special assessment policy and to discuss the time line for the upcoming street project on First Avenue Southwest.

The purpose of having a policy such as this, Grabau said, is to explain the city's due diligence in regard to utility improvements when done in conjunction with street projects. "It's something to start every project with," he added. "The council can go from there."

The policy being reviewed was based on one from Grabau's firm and adapted for the city of Harmony.

Richard Nethercut, the city's attorney, explained the policy provides a starting point, but the council still has the freedom to determine its final action on a case-by-case basis.

"You can do what you want," Grabau continued, "but to have a policy provides a guide and it's better than trying to remember what you've done in the past."

It becomes a matter of what is simply "past practices" versus "a matter of policy," he added.

The policy defines a special assessment as "a device employed primarily by municipal governments as a means to finance specific improvements desired by, or for, a neighborhood or area." It also explained that only those who benefit from the improvement are assessed for those costs. Assessments are also only imposed on real estate, not personal or movable property.

The policy states, "It is the intent and purpose of this policy to create a permanent program to manage, finance and implement the reconstruction or rehabilitation of the streets within the city of Harmony." It goes on to state the policy should be used as a planning tool to create a financing and payment system that is fair and equitable to all property owners within the city during the future years as it becomes necessary to update the city's street system.

Assessments are based on the number of feet on a property's frontage or on a per lot basis if the city feels it is more equitable. If a project is assessed based on frontage, a property owner with a larger lot will likely pay a larger portion of the total cost of the project. If the costs are assessed on a per lot basis, the total assessable costs will be divided by the number of lots within a project area, with each property owner paying the same amount.

In a street and utility project, the policy states 40 percent of the project costs for the reconstructed street will be assessed to the benefitting property owners with the city paying the remaining 60 percent. The city will pay 100 percent to improvements to the storm sewer, water main and sanitary sewer. Property owners, on the other hand, will be assessed 100 percent of the costs for sanitary sewer and water services on their own property.

The portion which explains assessments for sidewalk replacement and driveway approaches elicited a bit of conversation among the council members. First, Mayor Steve Donney questioned why the city would pay for the costs associated with the driveway approaches, but the property owner would be responsible for the sidewalk replacement.

"It's standard practice," Grabau replied. "Having proper accesses protects the roadway."

"If we want a sidewalk, I think the city should pay for it," Donney said. Which led to a side conversation regarding the city's lack of a sidewalk ordinance or policy. Many property owners in the community have removed sidewalks that have been in poor condition and have failed to replace it, instead creating additional green space on their lawns.

Grabau also said that if a sidewalk is installed on only one side of the street along a corridor, property owners on both sides of the street will be assessed.

Councilmember Deb Swenson said she was OK with approving the policy if they, as a council, could look at each individual project to determine the final assessments.

The council then approved the special assessment policy, which led to the discussion on the upcoming street and utility improvement project on First Avenue Southwest, the street running behind the high school. The project is being done in cooperation with Fillmore County as this is also County Road 35.

Grabau said the next step is for Stantec to do a feasibility report, which he will bring back to the Jan. 14 council meeting. He then asked that a special meeting be called for Jan. 21, so the council can hold a public hearing on the preliminary assessments.

The project schedule includes approval of the plans and specifications in February, advertising for bids once those are approved with a bid opening on March 13.

If all goes well, construction would begin the first week of June with final completion at the end of September.

The final assessment hearing would be held on Oct. 14.