St. Paul public works crews will tear up pavement, replace sewers and install new streetlights as usual this summer — though some crews will consist of one worker, and they’ll wipe down their equipment before and after work each day.
As city officials change how they do business in the time of COVID-19 — meeting remotely, reallocating money and postponing major policy changes — street work is continuing much as it did before. After a public hearing Wednesday, the City Council is expected to approve three street reconstruction projects next week that are scheduled to run through the summer, including a nearly $10 million project in Highland Park.
Though work isn’t expected to begin until May, some residents are raising concerns about having to pay thousands of dollars in street assessments, particularly amid the growing economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.
Interim Public Works Director Paul Kurtz said the city is proceeding according to Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which deems most construction jobs essential.
“We’ve just kept going with our project work,” Kurtz said. “I think the governor has recognized the importance of doing that, and we certainly recognize the importance of trying to get projects done and keep the economy going as much as we can.”
Public works has roughly 325 employees, and about 200 have maintenance or operations job responsibilities in the field, according to spokeswoman Lisa Hiebert. While maintenance crews used to start their shifts with a group stretching exercise, they now report directly to their trucks and sanitize them once their shifts are over. The department is also staggering shift start times and trying to make sure workers drive the same vehicles each day.
Street reconstruction bonds will finance the reconstruction projects happening this summer — on Como Avenue, Tedesco Street and the Griggs Street-Scheffer Avenue area of Highland Park — and assessments to property owners will pay off the debt.
At this point, assessment are just estimates; the council will ratify final assessment costs after the project is done, and residents will have an opportunity to testify. Assessments are calculated based on property type and linear feet of street frontage, and can be paid over 20 years.
Though property owners have balked at street assessments before, the hefty costs carry new weight as many face growing financial uncertainty.
Lisa Bowman, who bought her Highland Park house about a year ago, said her estimated $5,616 assessment is higher than her property tax bill. The single mother of two planned to attend a public hearing at City Hall to voice her concerns, but the hearing was canceled due to COVID-19 and replaced with an option to submit comments by email or voicemail.
“For my little portion of this project, it seems like it’s a lot of money, even if it’s divided out over the course of 20 years,” Bowman said. “It’s still an unexpected expense.”
Ross Winberg, whose family moved to Highland Park last summer, said he’s worried his estimated $7,020 assessment will rise when final costs are calculated.
“Maybe we need to look at cutting some costs at the city and trying to do a little bit less,” he said. “I know we want to help as many people as possible and we want the best city as possible, but the tax burden is kind of heavy in the city of St. Paul.”
Council Member Chris Tolbert, whose Highland Park house is among those being assessed, said he’s been talking to constituents about the two-phase Griggs-Scheffer project for years.
Crumbling pavement needs repair, missing curbs and stretches of sidewalk must be filled in and old lead pipes need to be replaced, Tolbert said, though he acknowledged that the timing isn’t ideal.
“I think everybody is worried about their personal finances right now, and the economy, and job uncertainty,” he said. “Everyone is looking at the world differently.”