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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 15 2009

Fargo city leaders divided over lighting fee

Fargo city commissioners voted 3-2 on Monday to give final approval to a street lighting utility after a vigorous debate in which opponents derided the timing of the vote and backers said it would keep a needed cushion in the city’s mill levy.

The lighting fee, which starts Jan. 1, gives homeowners and businesses a break compared with the rates proposed two weeks ago, but shifts a chunk of the costs to apartment dwellers.

Here’s how the city will now spread the cost of operating its 11,000 streetlights:

Commissioner Mike Williams said the timing of the fee, just before the holidays and well after budget talks, was wrong.

“Let’s give the taxpayers a break,” Williams said, urging commissioners to have staff adjust the budget to find ways to absorb the costs in 2010, and fully debate the utility next year.

“I don’t think we need to do this right now,” he said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said the property tax rate is at 58 mills, and the city is limited by law to 64 mills.

The cost of the lighting is 5 mills, he said, removing a cushion that may be needed for rising pension costs or flood control.

Commissioner Brad Wimmer asked Williams where the money should come from. He also pointed out that the commission voted 5-0 at its last meeting to approve the utility.

“Why the worry now?” Wimmer asked.

Wimmer agreed that the timing was bad, but pointed out the city has a tight budget.

“It’s going to be something the citizens can live with,” Wimmer said.

Dave Piepkorn said he got a lot of e-mails from unhappy residents.

“The concept is excellent, the execution is flawed,” Piepkorn said. “People’s perception is, ‘Why are you guys doing this at the end of the year?’ … I’m conflicted.”

“Let’s not make a mistake right now,” Williams said, just before the vote.

Williams and Piepkorn voted against the lighting utility; Walaker, Wimmer and Tim Mahoney voted for it.

City staff originally proposed that homeowners pay $4 per month and commercial properties pay $10 per month. That would have raised about $1.6 million, with about $323,000 being directed to the general fund, Finance Director Kent Costin said. But commissioners two weeks ago said that placed too much of the cost on residences.

Under the new plan, $1,500,708 will be raised under the new fee structure, with 16 percent of that, or $236,636, to be transferred to the general fund, according to finance office figures.

In other business, the commission:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583