City OKs Assessment

July 28, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — City commissioners said there was a need for a special downtown assessment last week, a tax levy downtown property owners have agreed to pay since 2001.

“It was a huge commitment from the downtown property owners,” said Robert Herr, chairman of the Downtown Improvement District, the group overseeing the upkeep and beautification of the Central Business District.

“They’re willing to fund the same improvements. It’s another great public-private partnership,” Herr added.

Funding from the assessment is likely to make up the new fiscal year budget for the DID, a spending plan commissioners still need to approve. And from comments made last week, at least two commissioners may not be inclined to ratify that budget.

Commissioners James Jendrasiak and David LaGrand voiced their opposition to cuts the DID board made to the proposed FY09 budget. They took exception to the elimination of funds for a resident assistance program operated by the Heart of West Michigan United Way and an inebriate center run by Mel Trotter Ministries. Each had received $15,000 from the assessment through the DID, but that $30,000 wasn’t included in the latest budget.

“Eliminating funding for the Mel Trotter inebriate center has put the DID on notice that its budget may be in jeopardy down the road,” said LaGrand, who added that without funds for the center, more homeless people and disorderly drunks will be on the district’s streets.

“Not funding these programs will hurt downtown,” he said.

Jendrasiak said if the two programs weren’t in the budget from the start, commissioners wouldn’t have approved the assessment seven years ago, and the DID probably wouldn’t have been created. Both commissioners mentioned that the city contributes to the special tax as a property owner.

But commissioners approved the assessment last week by a 4-to-2 vote. Jendrasiak and LaGrand voted against establishing the assessment for another year.

The levies are in addition to the property taxes owners pay because the city says the services offered by the DID are enhanced and not normally available.

“These services are tailored to benefit the properties within the district by ensuring the long-term viability and competitiveness of the downtown area by providing services that will, to some extent, decrease normal operating expense for property owners and by enhancing property values,” said Jay Fowler, Downtown Development Authority executive director. The proposed DID budget totals $877,800 for the year, with all the revenue coming from three assessments.

One levy is district wide and is worth $560,000, or 64 percent, to the total budget. This levy pays for sidewalk cleaning, litter collection, seasonal flowers, events, promotions, marketing, banners, advertising and administrative costs throughout the district.

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy said about $250,000 goes to year-round litter removal and cleaning, with roughly another $190,000 being spent on flowers.

Evoy also said the DID board was actively looking for other sources to replace the funds that went to the United Way and Mel Trotter.

A second levy is a $174,000 assessment of property owners along Monroe Center for the operation and maintenance of the snowmelt system.

The third is an assessment of $87,300 for the new snowmelt system being installed this year on the Louis Campau Promenade as part of that reconstruction project, which should be completed by the end of this year.

The DDA, which has set aside $800,000 for the promenade project, had hoped to get the work done last year. That budget had $157,000 in it for the snowmelt system. But the area was reduced, which resulted in the system’s cost being almost halved. Fowler said all the property owners affected by the project are on-board with it.

“There were concerns raised about the level of assessment. We went back to the engineers and it was downsized,” said Fowler of the snowmelt system.

Commissioners held two public hearings on the downtown assessment before they OK’d it last week.

Commissioners also ratified the $1 million annual budget for the SmartZone Local Development Financing Authority and the $665,145 budget for the Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority last week.

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