The stories were as heartbreaking as they were predictable after four years of tough economic times. Homeowner after homeowner stepped before the City Council on Tuesday to request that next year's street project be postponed. Each person detailed how business had stopped, how they’d lost their jobs, how they just didn’t have anything left.
“I’ve never seen the economy this bad,” a Harrison Avenue man said. “I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my savings. I’ve lost my retirement. I’m just trying to hang on keeping this building. I can’t afford another penny more. I mean I’m just bled out right now. This is not a good time to be doing this.”
The City of Hopkins has remained relatively unscathed despite the economic hardships swirling around the country. Nowhere is this more true than with the city’s street projects. While other communities have had to postpone such projects until better times, Hopkins has stuck to its plan—diligently improving some of its 55 miles of roads each year.
Public Works Director Steve Stadler told Patch after the meeting that Hopkins hasn’t gone a year without a road project since at least when he started working for the city in 1995. That’s a period that saw financial crises such as the dot-com bust, the loss of local government aid and the so-called Great Recession.
Through a combination of assessments and bonds, the community clearly has the resources to keep improving local infrastructure.
What’s less clear is the community’s will.
With each street project, affected homeowners urge the city to delay the work until better times.
It’s not hard to see why. Assessments for the $4.9 million project are expected to range from $4,800 to $13,000—with the assessment for a typical home falling at about $5,500. When homeowners are struggling to keep their home, alligator cracking on the road isn’t their first priority.
“What we do need is time to catch our breath, do some basic maintenance and stand proud as Hopkins residents,” said Bob Wittner, who’s lived on Harrison Avenue for 12 years. “What we don’t need is to feel the financial burden of a full reconstruction cost that, in my opinion, the contractors that do the work are going to be the one’s that (are) going to benefit from it most.”
But as Mayor Gene Maxwell explained, this isn’t a challenge facing just one part of Hopkins. Every project affects some homeowners. Every project faces the same opposition. The only alternative would be to just put off street projects altogether.
And there are good reasons for not doing that. The infrastructure will have to be upgraded at some point. The ongoing dearth of construction jobs and low interest rates make the street projects much cheaper now than they otherwise would be.
Meanwhile, the city has made it easier for homeowners to pay their assessments. It stretched the payback period from 10 years to 15 and lowered the interest rate it charges. It adjusted its project schedule so homeowners would have more notice assessments were coming. And it has a cap to shield against ballooning construction costs.
“I think the city has really maintained their infrastructure really, really well over the last few years,” Maxwell said. “We read about a lot of horror stories from different cities that let it go and all of a sudden the homeowners are getting charged with a lot more bills and everything else. So it’s something that we really take pride in—saying our infrastructure is really solid.”
But that’s small solace for homeowners struggling to get by—homeowners who are at the center of a tough balancing act between good stewardship of city resources and compassion for the hardest-hit residents.