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Baxter City Council: Hears split reaction on controversial project

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People pack the gallery during a special meeting of the Baxter City Council Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Baxter City Hall. The session to present information and hear from residents continues discourse on project with vocal opposition in the North Forestview neighborhood. The city is proposing adding city water and sewer to an area served by private wells and septic systems, as well as upgrade neighborhood streets. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch
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BAXTER -- In a listening session before a crowded council chamber, Baxter City Council members heard a little bit of everything regarding residents’ views of a proposed street and city services project, including calls for a class action lawsuit.

Meeting in a special session Tuesday, Oct. 29, Baxter City Council members and staff provided an overview of a proposed $10 million city project commonly referred to as the South Interceptor (noting a sanitary sewer line) and North Forestview project.

The city adjusted its assessment policy for developed neighborhoods like North Forestview to cap the assessment at $15,000 per equivalent residential unit. The change begins next year and will increase that $15,000 cap by inflation in following years. The assessment has a 15-year term. Property owners were given additional time to connect to city utilities, extending the period from one year to five.

It’s a project that has received repeated and vocal opposition from residents at meetings late last year and again this past summer. In response, the city re-evaluated its assessment policy.

Wednesday, in a meeting punctuated by claps from the audience, which numbered about 60, the council heard numerous comments against the project, as well as some positive feedback.

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Residents said the city had done nothing in the area for years when upgrades done earlier would have cost less, and now it seems the project is moving forward next year no matter what, potentially affecting home sales. Those opposed noted the financial burdens to homeowners, who will have additional costs well beyond the assessment itself, including paying for connections to city water and sewer.

Bob Passi, Scenic River Drive, said when they bought their house 15 years ago and were told then the project would be coming soon. “I think you’ve done a great job of listening to what the problems are and for coming up with a reasonable solution, particularly in terms of the cost. … If we don’t make the improvements, it’s like a sword hanging over our heads. It’s only going to get more expensive.”

Passi said they could talk about what was done or not done in the past, but in the present a solution is needed. “I would hope we could find a truce,” he said. “... I think the city stepped up to take a much larger portion of the costs. … I think it’s a reasonable kind of solution and I would hope, begrudgingly if nothing else, we could declare a truce and say let’s just move on with this whole thing.”

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Baxter City Council members and those gathered in the audience listen to a presentation by Bryan Drown, project engineer with Bolton and Menk, Tuesday, Oct. 29. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Ron Kidder said this plan wasn’t much changed from the one proposed last year and the city was talking about it like a foregone conclusion. This is a project, Kidder said, that doesn’t have to go forward.

Rose Bankers said the project was a solution in search of a problem. “I would argue we don’t have a problem,” Bankers said. “I believe city water and sewer is wasteful.” Bankers said she was offended by remarks that septic systems will fail and the council could put in a mandate to check them, but hasn’t done so. “There is no mandate from anywhere that says septic systems have to go. … I would urge the council to stop spending money we don’t have for things we don’t need.”

“This project is unnecessary,” said Michael Hopps, Camwood Trail. Hopps said there is no evidence the septic systems are doing any damage to the water table. “We don’t want this service. We don’t need this service.”

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Hopps noted the city did work to cut the costs down. He asked the council to reconsider this project. He questioned whether it was a good expenditure of the city’s funds and said it wasn’t going to add anything to the value to the individual properties. “Let’s make it a community effort, If they go through with this thing, let’s sue them,” Hopps said, suggesting a class action lawsuit with residents banding together in opposition. “It’s suing ourselves, but we have to do ourselves justice.”

Beth Passi said Hopps is a good man, but she didn’t think he represents everyone in the community. “We did elect these people. We had a choice when we elected our city council and we elected them because we thought they’d represent us the best they could. And I wish we could not be as angry at them as we are because I think they are trying really hard.”

Council member Connie Lyscio said she has heard several times about the inability to fight city hall and that it was a “you against us” issue.

“I don’t feel like I am fighting against you. I feel I am hopefully doing something for you and us,” Lyscio said, adding she heard her previous comments came across as flippant at a previous meeting. She apologized saying the thought she puts into her votes is anything but flippant. Lyscio said changes made, such as extending the hookup time, were a step in the right direction. Lyscio said she also understands $15,000 is a lot of money. “Speaking for myself I am not set on a decision. … We are in this with you. I feel everything you are saying and I hear everything you are saying.”

Mayor Darrel Olson said the purpose of the meeting was to provide information and hear from residents with no goal to fight or argue with those attending.

“The idea was to hear what you had to say. …” Olson said. “I do want to say something though that it is very difficult as a council person to know exactly what do people want. There are 240 parcels out there and we’ve had maybe 50 people show up.”

Olson said he’s had calls from people who are in favor of the project but noted people who are for things don’t usually come to the meeting. The people who are against something do and Olson said he didn’t mean that critically, but that it is just what happens. Are 40-50 people representative of the entire area? he asked.

“We heard what you had to say and we appreciate your coming and your input,” Olson said.

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Next steps

The city will consider ordering the project and moving forward with it at its Nov. 5 council session and could order preparation of plans and specifications.

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Baxter City Council members and those gathered in the audience listen to a presentation by Bryan Drown, project engineer with Bolton and Menk, Tuesday, Oct. 29. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICSBAXTER
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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