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Street lighting fees 'more fair'

WORTHINGTON -- Starting in October, the cost of street lighting would be shifted off the tax rolls and onto Worthington Public Utilities bills -- a change city officials say will make for a more equitable distribution of fees -- under a proposal to be considered by city councilmen in the coming weeks.

The charge will appear as a separate line item on residents' utility bills; fees will be $4.35 per month for residential properties and $13.05 per month for commercial, industrial, institutional and multifamily housing units. The rates reflect the cost for power used to operate the lighting system and the average cost for installing and maintaining the street lighting infrastructure.

The switch is expected to save the city $50,000.

City Administrator Craig Clark said the shift was a "more fair and equitable" way to distribute fees because it spreads the cost burden across all properties with adjacent street lights. Properties classified as institutional currently account for 3.8 percent of lights within 75 feet, but don't share in the funding because of their tax-exempt status.

"The cost is paid by residents now in their property taxes," Clark explained. "It's about what is the best and fairest way to pay for service."

The council has yet to approve the ordinance that would establish the new utility fee, but did host a sparsely attended public hearing on the issue June 28. Council members have been criticized by those who say the fee's true purpose is to raise funds in a budget battered by several rounds of Local Government Aid cuts.

If that were the case, argued Clark, the council would have approved a tax levy increase far higher than the 2.9 percent certified for 2010. This year, the state allowed cities to increase their levies by as much as 12 percent.

Clark pointed to the city's historically low levy increases: a Worthington residential property valued at $100,000 in 2010 pays only $90 more in taxes than a same-value property in 2001. The city's tax on such properties was $409 in 2001 and $499 this year, though taxes topped $500 mid-decade.

Nearly 30 cities in Minnesota currently use a street lighting utility, including Waconia, Stewartville and Hermantown. The city of Worthington has not previously considered or implemented the utility.