Lakeview Street neighbors  Rob Lavie, Christina  McKenna, Karl Lyngass and Marcie Duncan worked to get a special assessment district on their street to improve the road.

Lakeview Street neighbors Rob Lavie, Christina McKenna, Karl Lyngass and Marcie Duncan worked to get a special assessment district on their street to improve the road.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

‘You’re pitting neighbors against neighbors’

Birmingham struggles to find fair system for road funding

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 28, 2019


BIRMINGHAM — There’s one thing most Birmingham residents can agree on: If residents are going to be handed a bill to fix residential roads, it’s better direct their anger to City Hall than at each other.

But since the mid-1800s, when Birmingham wasn’t a city at all and just a growing village, that’s the way it’s always been done.

Traditional gravel streets, without standard features most of us have come to expect — like curbs, storm drainage and pavement — were incorporated as is during annexations. Sometimes, neighbors would pitch in to have those old roads updated, while others decided to live with the gravel to avoid costs.

That’s still the procedure that stands today: If you live on an unimproved road in Birmingham and you want it to be improved, you and your neighbors have to foot the bill. Rallying a street to come up with the cash can make for a pretty uncomfortable conversation between neighbors who do want to shell out for the work and those who don’t.

Door to door
That’s what Christina McKenna has experienced for the past four years or so since she took the lead in her neighborhood to get Lakeview Street improved. To get the city to put a special assessment on homes in the area to pay for road improvements, residents need to prove more than 50% of homeowners are on board with the idea via a petition.

Getting those signatures can be a tough job.

“It was in the fall of 2015 that we first circulated a petition. The first run at this was very misguided,” McKenna remembered. “We really didn’t understand the process, and we completely misread the sentiment on the block. And because we didn’t understand the petition process well enough, we couldn’t explain it enough to be persuasive.”

That year, McKenna and several of her neighbors tried to collect enough signatures to bring to the Birmingham Engineering Department so a road study could be done. The study would determine how much the project would cost to improve the street and how much of that cost would land on each homeowner.

It was worth going door to door to get those signatures, in McKenna’s mind, because the unimproved street wasn’t just unsightly, it was dangerous.

“It wasn’t up to code for diameter of a water main, so God forbid we have a fire on the street, we want the hydrants to be working the way they should. And it also gives us an opportunity to see which homes may still have lead pipes and remediate those,” she explained. “But really, we’ve had horrible drainage on our street for decades. Once we start getting into frozen temperatures each winter, the sidewalks are impassable because it was just a sheet of ice.”

It took time and lots of talking, which McKenna didn’t mind so much since she said it gave her the opportunity to really get to know her neighbors. But it took time away from her family and her business to hold all of those community meetings, meet with city engineers and attend city meetings.

She got the job done this past summer. The City Commission voted Sept. 16 to place a special assessment district on her neighborhood to improve the street. The work should take place in the late summer months of 2020, she said.

‘That’s half my property taxes’
Resident Kristie Bidlake also had a win over the summer. When her neighbors were presented with a similar proposal to improve their street, organizers collected enough signatures in support on the block to get the Engineering Department to conduct a study. After seeing the price tag estimated in the 12-page report — approximately $200 per foot of property — Bidlake and other homeowners on Wimbleton Drive went to Birmingham administrators to retroactively take their names off that petition and undo the majority support needed to move forward with a commission vote to improve the street and impose an SAD.

“I think it’s down to 38% (of homeowners in support) now,” Bidlake said.

It’s not that Bidlake is opposed to improving Wimbleton — among other things, she doesn’t like the fact that she has to bag leaves each fall to be removed instead of just pushing them to the street like neighborhoods with curbs. And don’t get her started on the potholes on the gravel road, which she compares to the size of the cars that drive over them. But the SAD to pay for the effort would have placed a lien on her home for tens of thousands of dollars. Those who can’t pay up front can finance with the city for a period of 10 years, but at an interest rate of 12%, Bidlake lamented.

“I would be paying 150% of my current tax bill for the next 10 years,” she added later in an email. “The process calculates the special assessment based on linear footage, not home value, and while my home value isn’t the same as million-dollar homes in the neighborhood, I’d be paying more since my lot is longer.”

The little committee with a big job
The problem is hardly new, according to City Manager Joe Valentine. Residents have griped about the primitive petition to get unimproved roads fixed for decades. In his opinion, it needs to stop.

“Back when Birmingham was a village, we took on new streets and all the infrastructure that came with those neighborhoods,” he said. “(The procedure) was then to get the majority of residents on board with a special assessment district to pay to improve the road, and then they would turn them over to the city to be maintained going forth.”

Gravel roads have traditionally been treated with a cape seal every several years to keep dust to a minimum. The cost for that treatment fell to the homeowners at about $15 per foot. Sometimes, neighborhoods would band together to ask the city not to cape seal the street so they could try to get a petition effort together to redo the road altogether.

Residents ask Valentine all the time why the city doesn’t just pony up to redo the city’s unimproved roads. It’s just not that simple, he said. It’s like double jeopardy of the pocketbook.

“How do we (levy taxes) to pay to improve the unimproved roads without double charging the people who’ve already paid to improve theirs?” he said. “How do you fund 26 miles worth of road improvements fairly?”

If the tab were spread out as a general city tax among all payers, sure, the individual hit would be less. But is it fair to those who have already paid?

“I get that there are a lot of dynamics the city is dealing with here,” Bidlake said. “How do you fairly (raise) the money to fund road improvements without double charging people who have just paid (a special assessment to have their road improved)?”

To try to answer that question, the city created an ad hoc committee to research the dilemma and make a recommendation to the City Commission. About a year and a half ago, the Ad Hoc Unimproved Streets Committee began meeting, and eventually hired a consulting firm to research how other municipalities in the country have dealt with similar issues.

“We’ve been compiling that analysis to put into the form of several drafts that apply to our city to give to the committee to make a decision,” Valentine said, adding that he hopes the committee can make a recommendation this spring.

“The committee was then educated on all aspects of the petition process, so they understand all of the challenges involved when we present them scenarios to consider. Then we’ll have public forums for input. Then it will go back to the committee for another draft and maybe a final public forum before it goes to the City Commission.”

The topic is a hot one among candidates in the upcoming race for Birmingham City Commission. Mayor Patty Bordman, who is running for reelection to the commission, said during a candidate forum in September that she thinks the petition process needs to be scrapped since it puts an unnecessary burden on neighbors. Mayor Pro Tem Pierre Boutros, also running for reelection as a write-in candidate, sits on the Ad Hoc Unimproved Streets Committee and said he too thinks the petition process needs to go and the city needs to figure out how to get the cash to finish the unimproved roads once and for all — an expense that would well exceed $100 million.

Matt Wilde, a new candidate for the commission, said that cost is a major part of the problem.

“It’s not fair that our families have to pay their mortgage, two car payments and then get hit with a $30,000 lien on their house,” he said in September. “We can find a way, with our AAA bond rating I hear so much about, to harness it with interest rates the lowest they’ve been in almost 100 years, to improve our roads.”

Bidlake counts herself in the lot of residents who moved to Birmingham with a certain budget in mind to keep her young family afloat. The added SAD cost would blow that budget out of the water, and she fears others could be hurt even worse.

“It’s fine that everyone is at different points in their lives and they can afford different things,” she added in her email. “But there are new neighbors trying to pay for their wedding, trying to send their kids to college and senior citizens paying for medical bills.”

The concrete standard
Along with figuring out how to divvy up the costs for unimproved road remediation, the ad hoc committee is also tasked with deciding if the city’s current standard for improved roads is fair.

“Part of that discussion will be road material. Asphalt is cheaper than concrete, but the city currently requires that any new road be concrete because, since we’ll be maintaining it in the future, concrete has a longer life,” Valentine said.

That was definitely part of the trouble McKenna said she faced during her petition process. The cost of concrete is approximately 35% higher than asphalt initially, though some residents debate whether there are cost savings in the long run because when concrete does fail, repairs can be more invasive and expensive.

Not to mention, McKenna said, most of her neighbors think asphalt looks more residential.

“Many of the folks who weren’t immediately on board with the road safety improvements told me later that they didn’t like the prospect of getting concrete instead of asphalt. They felt concrete wouldn’t look appropriate for a street with this kind of maturity. Asphalt has a softer aesthetic, and many felt residents should be given that option,” she explained. “Birmingham is a city that has long appreciated the value of aesthetics. The gorgeous streetscape of downtown and the neighborhoods is no accident. These choices are so important to the aesthetic of our city and these premier homes.”

Now we wait
In the end, residents on either side of the debate and even those at the commission table can agree that the procedure to fix outdated streets is in itself outdated. Hopefully, Valentine said, a new plan is on the way.

The sooner the better, Bidlake said, because she’s worried about tensions getting riled up again the next time a homeowner on her street decides to undertake the petition process.

“You’re pitting neighbors against neighbors,” she said.