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Guest Commentary: Assessments best option for dire infrastructure needs

Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson

It's a new day in Two Harbors. The City Council and staff have worked over the past two years to create a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) from the ground up and to revise and update our special assessment policy. We have heard over and over from the community members and the visitors to our area that they want the city to fix our roads, sidewalks, alleys and infrastructure.

The Capital Improvement Plan and assessment policy were created to provide a clear and comprehensive plan and funding mechanism to show the city's commitment to addressing our long term infrastructure needs. Throughout that process we have never promised that the fix would be simple, the process would be perfect, or that the solution would not involve significant costs.

Within the city of Two Harbors we have over 45,000 linear feet of streets of which only 1,000 feet are scheduled for repair in 2018. We have over 90 blocks of alleys of which five are scheduled for re-construction in 2018. City crews recently found a section of cast iron pipe which was date stamped from the 1800s, and inflow and infiltration problems continue to strain our treatment facilities. The list continues to grow.

Fixing and funding second generation infrastructure is never easy. The city has outlined an aggressive and comprehensive approach to street, alley and infrastructure improvements to try to get a handle on a backlog of repairs. The fact of the matter is, the cost to repair our infrastructure is only increasing, while the condition of our infrastructure is continuing to deteriorate.

Regulatory mandates are also likely to increase, which will likely create future costs and challenges. An aggressive tact is needed to stabilize the situation. We cannot continue to make improvements one or two blocks at a time, and we can no longer try to fix the problem with the cheapest solution. We no longer have the luxury to kick the can down the bumpy road. We need to take decisive action.

Special assessments are a tried and tested method to fund infrastructure improvements. They require the adjacent property owners who will benefit the most from the improvement to pay a share of the improvements, with the other share spread over the entire city. Based on the condition of our current infrastructure and considering our future needs, we have outlined a clear plan to fix and fund those improvements primarily with the use of special assessments.

I understand that this puts an additional burden on our residents and business owners, and it is not something I take lightly. The city is continually seeking outside funding to offset some of those costs, but the reality is that grant funding for infrastructure is rarely available, levy limits hamstring our long term abilities to address other city needs, and the state and federal governments have not given any indications that they are willing to contribute to a sustainable solution. This puts the burden on us to address the issue locally.

If we are truly committed as a community to fix our infrastructure, then we need to be realistic and honest about what options are truly viable and ask those who benefit from the improvement to help defray the costs.

There has never been a question from the administrative staff or city council about the capability of our staff, this is a question of capacity. The principal of economic scarcity sums it up, we have a list of seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources. Part of being a successful organization is understanding and being realistic about your limitations. If we look at the critical infrastructure needs over the next five years and beyond, it is unrealistic to expect our limited staff resources to be able to keep up with demand. I understand that this is not a universally held perspective, but it is the truth.

Based on the projected costs of the 2018 projects and beyond, I understand that this is an extremely difficult decision for the city council. To be clear, we have 100 percent confidence in the ability and workmanship of our staff. They take great pride in their work and they put it all on the line to keep this community running. Just last week I received two compliments on staff responsiveness. I cannot thank them enough for this. But while we continue to ask more and more of them, we lack the ability to create more time to complete the tasks.

When we consider the reality of the scale of our infrastructure needs combined with our limited ability to fund the long term improvements, it becomes unrealistic to put that burden on their shoulders.

I understand that sometimes recommendations are not universally popular, but there should be no doubt that this City Council makes decisions with the long term interest of the community in mind. The recommendation to move forward with the 2018 CIP projects as presented is not something I take lightly. Given the current condition of our infrastructure, we have been left with very few options.