Water bill unpaid? It could go on your tax bill

In Caledonia in southeastern Minnesota, they’ve put off street pavement projects and delayed buying new city vehicles. Now they’re thinking about getting tough on water and sewer bills.

As the financial vice gets tighter on cities, most are looking for ways to add revenue or trim expenses, and one option in Minnesota is for cities to add unpaid water and sewer bills to your property tax bill.

Some cities do this already, but it’s never been tried in Caledonia, population 2,900, city clerk Jennifer Feely says. It’s not going to save the day — right now the city has $11,000 in delinquent bills and an annual budget of $1.8 million.

But it’s partly a question of fairness to those who pay their bills on time, Feely said. Besides, “it all adds up.”

As we watch this play out in Minnesota (check out our Ground Level “Cities in Crisis” topic page), I keep looking for a sense of broader participation.

City councils shifting water bills, turning off streetlights and cutting back city hall hours are not the same thing as community-wide conversations about what services people want their cities to provide.

I asked Feely about this and she said her sense was that Caledonia residents did have the notion that long-term infrastructure questions were in the air, but the city has not held any community meetings to air the larger situation.

Some cities have surveyed residents, some have pushed their budget planning horizon further into the future, and the League of Minnesota Cities has been actively talking about the squeeze. But I keep looking for an example of a place that has tried to get its residents to go back to square one and define what they do and don’t want to do for each other as a local government.

Anybody know of one?

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