Judge to deliberate on city roads assessment

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published February 21, 2017

 Neighborhood organizer Barb Cripps speaks to a crowd of people who gathered last August to discuss the city’s special assessments for road improvements policy.

Neighborhood organizer Barb Cripps speaks to a crowd of people who gathered last August to discuss the city’s special assessments for road improvements policy.

File photo by Donna Dalziel

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FARMINGTON HILLS — An Oakland County Circuit Court judge will make a ruling that could impact Farmington Hills residents’ pockets when it comes to paying for local roads. 

In a city of Farmington Hills lawsuit against about 80 Independence Commons subdivision residents, Judge Phyllis McMillen will decide on whether a city road improvement policy can require homeowners each to pay roughly $12,000-$18,000 over 10-15 years. The assessment is based on average abutting frontage, according to a letter from the city that was sent on behalf of city civil engineer Tammy Gushard.

The trial is set for July 24 before McMillen. However, McMillen may make a ruling before the trial.

During oral arguments Feb. 1 before McMillen, City Attorney Steven P. Joppich and Sylvan Lake-based attorney Thomas Ryan, who represents Independence Commons subdivision residents, argued their cases. Subdivision resident Thomas DeWard represented himself.

The city of Farmington Hills sent out letters last August informing a number of residents that certain streets — such as the Flemings Roseland Park and Farmington Acres subdivisions, along with Omenwood Street and Geraldine Road — are being considered for reconstruction.

Per the city’s directed special assessments for road improvements policy — approved by the City Council last April — local roads are given priority to be improved based on a pavement condition rating and a number of other factors, like housing density, Department of Public Works upkeep and public interest.

Under that policy, the city is responsible for paying 20 percent, while residents pay 80 percent.

Last summer, Assistant City Manager Gary Mekjian said during an interview that in 2014, the city  revised the way it rates pavement conditions.

He said that when City Council members saw the poor conditions of the streets, they changed the road improvements policy. The policy always allowed residents to petition the city to reconstruct their local streets, but now the city can impose an SAD without residents petitioning.

“But if streets in your neighborhood fall below minimum pavement condition, the city will put you on the capital improvement plan and move forward (with it). That is what has changed,” he said last year.

The standardized pavement assessment is also used throughout the state and county for road agencies to rank roads on a scale of 1-10, Mekjian said.

“Ten is a brand-new road,” he said then, adding that a 2 rating is practically undrivable because you “can’t travel the posted speed.”

He said that neighborhoods with a pavement condition of  2.75 or less are going to get moved into the capital plan.

Mekjian said that the letter was appropriate to send out to residents so that they were not “blindsided” and would be able to ask questions about the project.

During oral arguments, Joppich said that “there are very significant issues” at stake for the city, the residents and the people who live in Independence Commons.

“It is an important case to a great many people,” Joppich said, adding that the defendants’ focus is primarily that the city has not stated the benefits of the assessment. However, he said that “nothing could really be further from the truth — the city has clearly indicated in its (court) briefs that the No. 1 main benefit received by roads is access. These are access roads to all 340-odd houses within Independence Commons subdivision.”

He said that the same thing applies to other local roads throughout the city. 

“These roads provide access to these private property owners. That is how it works,” Joppich said. 

Joppich said that Independence Commons was first constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and had cement roads put in.

“Roads, sewers, water — they have a life span,” Joppich said in court.

Joppich added in an email follow-up comment that residents do not routinely pay taxes for improvement of the roads, such as road replacement and/or reconstruction.  

“Snow plowing, pothole patching … are different,” he said in the email.

McMillen said the formula developed for the assessment has “nothing to do” with benefit.

“It has to do with cost,” she said. “There is an immediate assumption that somehow cost equals benefit, and I think that is the part that you are overlooking here.”

McMillen went on to say that a city charter cannot trump the state or U.S. constitutions.

“Our argument is that the charter works with the constitution,” Joppich said, adding that residents have lived with the charter “just fine” since the city was created. “There is value in the form of increased safety, safe roads.”

If the assessment were to stand, McMillen said, “The citizens would have no say in anything. The city could include any cost it wanted and say no matter what the benefit is, (the city is) limited to (paying) 20 percent.”

Joppich argued that residents do have a say because there were previous public hearings held where residents voiced their opinions. 

Joppich said the city would not have free rein to charge residents whatever the city wanted because there are standards in place that apply to reviewing special assessments.

DeWard said the city is ignoring the fact that the city of Farmington Hills receives gas tax revenue, among other taxes, from the state, and collects revenue from a 2-mill, 10-year public streets and roads tax.

The millage costs the owner of a $170,000 home about $170 annually, and generates up to $6.1 million each year for 10 years. The funds are used to improve, rehabilitate, maintain and repair the city’s roads.

“All those funds … (go) into a special fund,” DeWard said. “It doesn’t go into the general fund, and where is the city getting the money to pay the 20 percent? In our case, they’re getting it all from the road millage.”

Joppich — who declined to comment to C & G on the matter due to the pending court case — said that it costs a lot of money to have roads.

“The costs are going up and up and up with the infrastructure crisis in Michigan, the contractors not being sufficient in number, (and) the market is not at the greatest right now,” Joppich said. “The city has to deal with it just like its residents do. In a way, we are all in this together.”

The 80 subdivision residents initially took their grievances to the Michigan Tax Tribunal in April to say that they felt that the high road assessment would not pay off for them. The city responded by suing them in order to allow the courts to have the final legal say, city officials said.

Mayor Ken Massey said last August that the residents used their right to appeal to the MTT for their assessment values. Independence Commons residents are asking the city to put in more than 20 percent of the cost.

“The tax tribunal was not going to provide any relief in this matter,” Ryan said, adding that the MTT said that the residents did not meet their burden of proof against the assessment. “So the assessment stands, but as we sit here today… nobody ... can tell us what the benefit of this huge project is.”

Massey said recently that McMillen’s ruling could come now or a month or so from now.

Massey said he wants residents to know that while they always have the ability to appeal their assessments, the city follows the law as it is written in the charter and state constitution.

“Ultimately, I would like to see … misinformation … go away,” he said.

Farmington Hills resident Barbara Cripps, who lives on Bridgeman Street, said that it was a good sign that McMillen had a lot of questions, but whatever happens, happens.

“If we win, then we win. If we lose, then we have the option of appealing it,” she said. “If we win, the city has the (option) of appealing it as well.”

She said the city cannot tax people over and above the value that a project will add, but it seems to be trying to do that. 

Cripps added that there are a number of retired residents and people in her neighborhood and subdivision on fixed incomes, living in homes that are not in the $300,000-$400,000 price range. The average home prices for her neighborhood and the nine neighborhoods slated for roadwork in 2017 are $70,000 to $175,000, she said.

“I’m hoping if we do get these roads, they will be in line with the benefit and we won’t be charged $20,000 for some asphalt.”

For more information, go to www.fhgov.com.

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