This year’s public hearing held Monday evening; special service district will expire in 2017
There was a time, almost 20 years ago, when the Crookston City Hall council chambers was as packed with irate citizens as it was earlier this spring, when many Crookston residents attended meetings to voice their displeasure with the council's plans to put an RV park in Castle Park.
It was in the wake of the record 1997 flood, when Crookston residents rallied for weeks to sandbag and prevent what would become a 28.3 foot crest of the Red Lake River from flooding Crookston's low-lying neighborhoods. After that epic fight, Public Works Director Pat Kelly and since-retired Building Official Mike MacDonald knew the community couldn't wait indefinitely for federally funded flood control projects to be approved for Crookston's most at-risk neighborhoods.
If there was any hope in speeding up the process – this was around eight years before the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources took one look at Crookston's eroding dikes and took the lead on funding flood control efforts here – Crookston would need to pay-down the federal government's benefit-to-cost ratio when it came to considering flood control projects in the community.
So Kelly and MacDonald came up with a plan for a local tax, if you will, which would require the approval of the Minnesota Legislature. Lawmakers subsequently OK'ed a 20-year "special service district" for Crookston, which soon became known locally as the "flood fund" or the "flood fee." The idea was that local property owners would be taxed every year and that money would go into an interest-accruing fund that would show the feds that Crookston was serious about advancing local flood protection efforts.
But, oh, did that concept upset some people. Citizens packed the council chambers to cry foul, but the council stood firm and approved the flood fee.
How it works is each year, non-developed parcels outside of the flood plain are assessed a $50 fee. Developed parcels on similar high ground are assessed a $100 fee each year. If you own property in the 100-year flood plain boundary, you pay $150 a year and, if your property is removed from the 100-year flood plain boundary thanks to a flood control project, you pay $300 a year. The thinking behind that increase was that those property owners would have the money available from the savings from not having to purchase flood insurance policies.
Each summer of the 20-year special service district, the council is required to hold a public hearing to give citizens a chance to speak about the flood fund. Then, after each hearing, citizens are given a certain amount of time to voice their opposition in the form of their signature next to any parcel numbers they own that are listed in a book at city hall. If enough people sign, the council is forced to revisit the special service district. But there's never really been any suspense when it comes to people signing on the dotted line at city hall.
The plan from day one was to not just have local money available to pay for flood control projects, but to also have money once the special service district expired to set up and endowed fund, the interest from which would help operate and maintain a new levee system. That goal was made much more attainable once the Minnesota DNR took over local flood control funding and, as a result, the special service district has come in handy for various flood control-related purchases and other expenses over the years, but has never had to be a primary source for funding to construct levees. Given all that, three years before its scheduled sunset in 2017, the flood fund has a balance of around $3 million, Finance Director Angel Hoeffner reported at Monday's council meeting, at which this year's special service district public hearing was held in order for the fee to be collected once again during the next tax year.
Since the very first project, primarily in the Woods Addition and federally funded and led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, remains the only project that has officially modified Crookston's 100-year flood plain map, property owners in that area are the only ones to have their annual fee doubled to $300. Property owners in Sampson's and Jerome's additions that are in the flood plain boundary are still paying $150 a year because those areas have not yet been officially removed from the flood plain. Local officials are hoping to obtain a "Letter of Map Revision" for those neighborhoods from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2015.