Special assessments raise ire of some Rhinelander residents, city council members
Seven property owners on Ohlson Lane recently received bills from the city of Rhinelander, requesting payment of over $24,000 each for sewer and water lines installed over the summer. Several of the property owners spoke during a public hearing Monday at Rhinelander City Hall. It is a project and expense they said were a surprise.
“I’m kind of worried about this,” Ohlson Lane resident Richard Ottman told the council. “We were never told about this construction; never got any kind of notification on it. We didn’t even know it was going on until after it started … and still didn’t know what it was until I went out and talked to some of the construction people.”
Four of Ottman’s neighbors also addressed the council, saying they didn’t know they would have to pay for the work being done. They called it unfair and unrealistic and said city water and sewer were not wanted by the residents. The additional $10,000 would be charged when their homes are connected to city utilities, which by ordinance they must do within a year.
“One of the main selling points for me was it did have its own well and it did have its own septic system,” said Chad Blumenschein. “When I heard that I would be forced to tie into city utilities, I was not pleased.”
The amount assessed the Ohlson Lane residents is half of the cost; the city is paying the other 50%. The residents can pay the assessment over 25 years at a 3.5% interest rate.
City attorney Steve Sorenson said the city followed state law when putting the item on the publicly-noticed meeting agenda.
“Letters being sent is not a prerequisite to doing a public project; we do lots of public projects without letting everyone…you know, getting notice,” Sorenson said. “You voted as a council to do the public project.”
The city council approved the Ohlson Lane project and a per-property assessment at the Oct. 25, 2021, meeting. According to meeting minutes, then-city administrator Zach Vruwink asked the council for a recommendation to “move forward with special assessment to install utilities” on the east side of Ohlson. “Vruwink noted it would be approximately $40,000 per property owner, with street costs paid for out of PRAT funds,” according to meeting minutes. The motion passed unanimously.
Alder Tom Barnett, who voted for the project in 2021, said Monday he is not sure he supports the assessment.
“The last thing I want to do is put an extra burden on these residents,” Barnett said. “It’s going to take a lot more convincing for me to vote on this.”
Since that October 2021 meeting, the city has a different mayor, clerk, city administrator and two new council members. One of those, Alder Steven Jopek, questioned why the utility work was requested.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Jopek said. “Until I see something that says this is why we did it, this was the logic behind it, this was the reasoning behind it and it makes a whole hell of a lot of sense, I can’t be in favor of just dropping that on those seven lots and saying, all right, have a good day; we did our job.”
“We had too many moving parts with staff over the last two or three years and I think this is one of those things that could have been done better, I don’t disagree,” said Sorenson. “But we have the situation we have and we have to make the best of it.”
Sorenson said there are options the city can consider, including changing the ordinance that requires hook up to water and sewer and look at changing the assessment. Whatever changes they may make, Sorenson noted, would be precedent setting.
“These are discussions you as council members should have before starting any sewer and water project,” said Sorenson. “You have to think of the ramifications of everything you do.”
The council took no action. Instead, it requested city administration put together a memo for the council and Ohlson Lane residents that contains answers to questions and concerns raised, as well as an outline of possible options.
The next council meeting is Monday, Feb. 13.