Two churches in downtown St. Paul that have spent five years fighting 2011 city right-of-way assessments hoped a trial next week would vindicate their claim that the city’s assessment process is illegal.
The trial has been canceled.
City Attorney Sammy Clark said Tuesday that he expects St. Paul will consent to an order for judgment this week. That judgment would likely result in the city repaying the churches the $24,365 they were assessed in 2011, and some other costs. But there would not be any broad determination about the city’s assessment practices.
“This is kind of the saddest victory I’ve ever experienced,” said Rev. William Englund, pastor at First Baptist Church of St. Paul, which was fighting the assessment along with the Church of St. Mary of St. Paul. The churches were more concerned about changing the assessment practices than the money, Englund said.
He described the order for judgment as a “court-imposed settlement.”
The city is evaluating its right-of-way assessment process and may make changes next year. The assessments are based on how much frontage a property has along a road or alley, so residents with unusual lots pay far more than their neighbors. How much someone pays per foot along the street differs depending on what type of property they own and where it is located in the city.
State law says when a property is assessed by the city, it should receive a special benefit. St. Paul uses right-of-way assessments for a variety of things, including snowplowing and tree trimming.
The 2011 case has been making its way through the court system for years and returned to the District Court after the Minnesota Supreme Court deemed the assessments were actually taxes. The case was remanded to the District Court to determine whether the city’s assessments are greater than the special benefits to the property.
Jack Hoeschler, the attorney representing the churches, said at trial he would have had experts show that the cost of assessments exceeds increases in properties’ market values. He said the city opted out of the trial because it could not find an expert to make the case that the benefits to a property are greater than the assessments.
“This is their only out. If they go to trial, they’ve got a serious problem. The king really has no clothes, and someone has to admit it,” Hoeschler said.
Clark, the city attorney, said, “I respectfully disagree with Jack.”
The city’s decision not to go to trial was based on cost savings, Clark said. It would have cost more than $30,000 to get a special expert to testify on short notice, he said, so the city will likely opt to repay the churches’ $24,365 assessments instead. He is checking with City Council members before agreeing to move forward with the judgment.
Representatives from the city and churches will meet Monday to determine how to proceed. The churches have argued against other years’ assessments, and Clark said he expects they will also discuss what will happen with those cases on Monday. The court stayed proceedings on those cases pending an outcome in the 2011 suit. They may end up in mediation if the two sides cannot negotiate a settlement in those cases, he said.
Meanwhile, several attorneys, including Hoeschler, plan to file a class-action lawsuit against the city next month over the right-of-way assessment process.
With the 2011 case not going to trial, Hoeschler said the class-action suit will be particularly critical in the effort to prove the assessments are improper.