This week Minneapolis city officials are presenting details of a proposed street light fee to the public. They say the fee is needed to help pay for electricity and light bulbs for the tens of thousands of streetlights throughout the city.
Some residents are upset about the proposed fee. But city officials say the plan is a sign of the times.
A small gathering of residents came to hear details about the streetlight fee proposal at Fairview Park in north Minneapolis. The citizens appeared to be outnumbered by city staff and media.
"Am I loud enough in the back?" asked city traffic and parking services director Jon Wertjes.
After seeing a few nodding heads, Wertjes said the streetlight fee would raise $3 million a year. It would appear as a special assessment on property tax statements. Wertjes said the average single-family homeowner would pay an extra $20 per year in property taxes. He said the formula is based on a calculation of $4 per thousand square feet of property.
"These are approximate numbers," he said. "In the second stage of the step process we would get into exact numbers for each individual property."
Owners of commercial and industrial buildings, especially downtown where there are more street lights would pay a bigger fee. For instance, Wertjes said a building the size of City Hall would be assessed over $400.
Some in attendance, including Mike Wade, own more than one property. Wade said he owns five in north Minneapolis, and he complained that the lighting in this part of town is substandard.
"Drive down Pennsylvania Avenue right now, from 42nd Street all the way up to Glenwood, it's dark as hell," he said.
Wade said he also worries that the city will raise the fee every year.
Some at the meeting asked if the city had considered other ways to cut costs, such as using more energy efficient bulbs, or solar-powered, battery-operated lights. Wertjes said the city is experimenting with a few new bulbs, but in limited areas.
Other people offered more broad criticism. Gilbert Kahle said the proposed streetlight fee - he calls it a tax - shows the city is failing to perform one of its most basic functions.
"When you have to go out and charge people extra to provide the lighting for them to live in the city and get around at night, you've really reached the lowest kind of spot," Kahle said.
But Jon Wertjes and other city leaders don't see it that way. They blame cuts in state aid for the increasing need to find new ways to fund basic services. Under Gov. Pawlenty's unallotment cuts, Minneapolis will lose an estimated $21 million in state aid for 2010.
Wertjes said 10 other metro area cities, including Apple Valley, Eagan and Brooklyn Park, already have street light fees in place and others are considering similar measures.
"This is actually a trend we've seen over the last 10 to 15 years," he said.
Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities said user fees, such as streetlight fees, help cities capture a wider stream of revenue. He said they can be assessed on organizations that are exempt from paying taxes, like churches, and that can help reduce the need to keep raising property taxes on everyone else.
Carlson said he doesn't have data yet to show that more cities are adding fees to offset state aid cuts, but he says it's likely. "Also, there'll also be a lot of cities that probably revisit the current charges that they impose to see if they are, in fact, recovering the costs of the benefits of those services from those beneficiaries," Carlson said.
The Minneapolis streetlight fee is far from a done deal. Recently, members of the city council raised potentially sticky issues, such as the fairness of applying a uniform rate to areas where some properties get more light than others.
Those questions and others will likely be raised again at another public meeting later this week, and at a public hearing in front of city council members next week.
The next meeting is July 16, at Martin Luther King Park, Minneapolis from 6:30 p.m. - 8:30 pm