Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor Melbys respond to letter to editor

To the editor:

Our mayor and council have worked hard to evolve a workable, fiscally responsible improvement plan for Chestnut St. and have now twice voted unanimously to pursue a design that will meet objectives while saving our city over $1 million. We feel they are being unfairly criticized for making this prudent decision. They are to be applauded.

The area concerned is four blocks below the bluff between Dakota and University Streets. A decade-old plan would have required the city to bring in tons of fill dirt to raise and widen this stretch. This elaborate plan far exceeds federal requirements. To hold back the tons of fill dirt, the taxpayers of Vermillion would have had to build a concrete retaining wall between the railroad tracks and the road. This wall would cost us almost $1 million. This plan was devised before Vermillion developed its bike path and Cotton Park to draw children to that area. This vertical wall would allow our city's children to play almost directly above the railroad tracks and speeding trains. This is obviously unsafe and is no longer appropriate for this area of children and family activity. Placing a 19-foot vertical retaining wall in this area designed for Vermillion's children would have been a tragedy waiting to happen.

The city is now pursuing a more moderate design that meets federal guidelines and fulfills the objectives, yet costs one fifth as much as the old plan. The new plan will not require the city to build the retaining wall for the railroad. All of the money saved, over $1 million, can be used for other street projects and economic development needs right here in Vermillion. None of the dollars are lost.

At the council's budget workshops, we heard dire predictions. Sales tax receipts are down, and the city will have to use more of its reserve monies. Taxes could have to be raised, and the council could vote to opt out of state tax limitations. With today's economy, tax dollars are precious. It would be irresponsible for the city to spend $1 million more on these improvements than necessary. While a few people are disappointed, our council and mayor have the responsibility of being stewards to ALL of Vermillion's taxpayers.

There are those who are frustrated and feel the need to personally attack the private property owners involved in the negotiations. If it makes them feel better to personally attack us, that's their prerogative. We find it necessary, however, to address some of the inaccuracies included in last week's letter by Bill Willroth Sr. It is unfortunate that he did not check many of his facts before publishing his letter.

He stated, "These same property owners were among those approaching the combined tax evaluation boards in the past to reduce their bluff side properties to a '0' taxable rating, as they felt they had no actual useable value." Not true. We have NEVER approached the equalization board to have our land value lowered, and have appealed the valuation of our home and lot only once. That was in order to have the value raised. Yes ? RAISED.

We believed that our property was undervalued, so felt that that was the responsible thing to do. Our valuation was raised; our taxes were raised. Anyone who wishes can verify this at the director of equalization's office, as Mr. Willroth could have done. His allegation is not true.

Mr. Willroth lists dollar amounts offered by the city and countered by property owners under the old plan. Not all of his numbers are accurate. If he had followed these very public negotiations, he could have provided correct dollar amounts, as well as input as to factors involved in the offers/counter offers. The offers made by the city so far were only for the actual land needed. They had not yet begun to negotiate a dollar amount for the damages that would have been caused to the remaining property.

Because the city had not suggested a dollar amount yet for the damage that would ultimately have been done, they suggested that we do so. We, therefore, included some of those estimated costs in our counter offer. According to the city's own condemnation expert, there could have been extensive damage done to the remaining property, and he acknowledged that his recommended amounts for the actual square footage did not include amounts for those damages. This land is, after all, the land that holds up the rest of our property. That, of course, explains the disparity of the offer/counteroffer process when negotiations were abandoned. When negotiations began, we offered to donate the land to the city if they would put in place controls to prevent/manage/control the erosion that would be caused by damaging the bluff, but the city was not able to economically address those realities. We did not want the taxpayers' money when this began, and we do not want it now. We are glad that a plan is being pursued that will not require the city to reimburse us for any losses.

In addition, please keep in mind that two years ago, when the city needed an additional parcel of land to complete its bike path, we privately bought that land and donated it to the city. Mr. Willroth may try to portray us as greedy landowners, but our actions do not merit his accusations.

Mr. Willroth states accurately that, "The $1.3 million estimated cost of the road project is a lot of money ?" He continues, however, " ? it has to be kept in mind that the railroad is responsible for $900,000 of these costs." While the railroad would have REQUIRED the city to build the massive retaining wall, the railroad would not have paid for the retaining wall. The city's taxpayers would have paid for it. He calculates that the difference between the two design plans is only $125,000 " ? if you discount the railroad's part in this."

We CAN'T discount the railroad's requirements, however. Apparently we have a different calculator than does Mr. Willroth, but that makes the difference between the two plans $1 million, not the $125,000 that he would like you to believe.

In questioning the validity of estimates for the project, Mr. Willroth writes, "The figure of expending only $275,000 on a revised plan keeps surfacing in their talk ? This is just a figure being thrown out for the sake of talk." Apparently he is not aware that the $275,000 estimate came to the council from Sayre Engineering as an estimate for paving and improving the existing roadway. While that estimate may rise if the improvements entail making the road a bit wider, the $1.3 million estimate for the old plan will also rise.

The costs of land acquisition, litigation, geotechnical studies, and erosion controls are just some of the expenses not included in this outdated construction estimate.

In discussing the safety hazard presented by this retaining wall, Mr. Willroth writes, "And what about the bicycle path built along the very edge of the Vermillion River? I heard no objections to that very attractive place to play from concerned mothers." Well, if Mr. Willroth didn't hear those concerns, he wasn't listening. There have been citizens and affected landowners before the council questioning the safety of various aspects of the bike path. We were among them. Again, he didn't check his facts.

"If condemnation proceedings have to be started, let's get on with it," he writes. Condemnation is not meant to be simply a convenience to government entities. It should be used only as a last resort.

In the case of the improvement of Chestnut St., the city and the private property owners involved were able to resolve the situation without the use of condemnation. That should be applauded.

Mr. Willroth writes, "It is time for Vermillion's City Council to stop listening to a few people intent on stopping a just construction project." In actuality, it is heartening that our elected officials are listening to Vermillion's taxpayers. They have twice voted unanimously to consider the less expensive plan. We realize that there are a handful of people disappointed in the outcome. A failed attempt was made to rally the business community to support the massive expenditure. Council members report, however, that phone calls from citizens have been running "overwhelmingly" in favor of the more modest improvements.

Mr. Willroth ends his letter by stating that the city taxpayers should proceed with the more elaborate Chestnut St. improvements, "No matter the cost." We don't even know how to respond to that irrational statement. Fortunately, the days of spending the taxpayer's dollars on wasteful projects "no matter the cost" are over.

Vermillion's mayor and city council are pursuing a rational course of action. The design they are contemplating is a win/win/win situation. Those citizens and businesses asking for the improvement of Chestnut St. win because it will be paved and improved.

The families who live above Chestnut St. win because their children and property will be safe. And, last but not least, the taxpayers of Vermillion win because the city will have over $1 million to provide other needed street improvements and economic development at a time when Vermillion's budget is tight and getting tighter.

We thank the mayor and council for their hard work.


Neil & Lynette Melby


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