A city bus drives down an unpaved road in Orchard Breeze, a neighborhood with unpaved streets just west of downtown Wichita. Property owners can petition the city to pave their roads if they’re able to pay. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
A city bus drives down an unpaved road in Orchard Breeze, a neighborhood with unpaved streets just west of downtown Wichita. Property owners can petition the city to pave their roads if they’re able to pay. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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In 2015, residents along North Meridian Avenue and 29th Street called for the city to pave their street. The dirt road was hard on their cars and caused drainage issues, neighbors wrote in a City Council document

“As people who use it often, we feel our cars get banged up every time we drive on it,” two residents wrote at the time. “On top of that, it has become hard to keep things clean because of the amount of dust that is kicked up when someone drives on it.”

But getting it paved was no easy, or cheap, task — and it wasn’t totally up to the city of Wichita to make it happen.

It meant at least half the property owners surrounding the unpaved road had to agree to shoulder the $120,000 paving cost. That’s because Wichita charges property owners to pave their own streets, as well as install water and sewer lines. These charges are called special assessments.

Developers of new neighborhoods are required to build these amenities from the get-go. But some older neighborhoods were built without paved streets or water lines in place — and are left to pay for the improvements now, if they want them. 

Residents came together to get North Meridian paved in 2015. But that’s uncommon, according to Gary Janzen, the assistant director of public works and utilities and city engineer. Only nine dirt streets have been paved via special assessment in recent years. Only one of 30 paving projects in 2022 is in an established neighborhood as opposed to a new development.  

“Most people are content with what they’ve got,” Janzen said. “They just don’t want to pay for it. They’re fine with it.”

The Wichita Beacon has put together a guide for the steps residents can take to pave their streets, add water and sewer lines or even install sidewalks in their neighborhood. 

What are special assessments?

A special assessment is a tax that property owners or developers pay to the city of Wichita so that the city will build a new amenity, like a paved road or sewer line. The tax is directly added to the property that is benefiting from the new infrastructure.

The amount of the tax is the cost of the project.

What projects will Wichita do with special assessments?

The city will pave roads, add water and sewer lines, build sidewalks and mow weeds.

Why doesn’t Wichita pay for these projects?

Mostly because that’s the way it’s always been, Janzen said. 

“If you look at all the neighborhood streets and the collector streets, every single street in this town almost, probably every single one, was paid for by the people who use the street,” Janzen said. “The people who live on the street. That’s how our community was developed.”

What’s the first step for an infrastructure improvement in my neighborhood?

First, you have to request a petition from the City Engineer’s Office at 316-268-4501.

The petition will do two things. First, it will map out an improvement district. This is the group of property owners that will have to pay for the new infrastructure. 

Next, it will estimate the cost of the project in your neighborhood and how much each property owner will pay. 

How much will I have to pay?

The city determines how much each person pays on a project-by-project basis.

In some cases, each property owner is responsible for a share of the cost based on how much square footage their lot takes up. 

In others, the cost is split equally between all property owners in the improvement district.

What comes after requesting a petition?

Enough nearby property owners have to be on board with paying the cost. 

Over 50% of the number of property owners in an improvement district have to sign the petition. Signatures from property owners who represent over 50% of the square footage in the improvement district are also sufficient.  

If enough people sign on, the petition will be sent to the City Council for approval.

Will my neighbors know if I’m trying to petition for a new improvement?

If the petition receives enough signatures to go before the City Council, all property owners in the improvement district receive a letter from the city alerting them to the petition.

How do I pay for the special assessment?

There are two options.

When the project is completed, the final cost is calculated. Statements are mailed to each property owner and can be paid up front. 

If you are unable to pay at that time, the cost will be spread over 15 or 20 years and a relatively low interest rate will be added. Each year, the cost will be added to your property tax.

What if I don’t want to pay or can’t afford to pay for a special assessment?

You have several options. 

First is to avoid signing the petition when those in the neighborhood request an upgrade.

If the petition is successfully brought before the City Council, you can speak at the City Council meeting in opposition to the project moving forward. 

Finally, if the City Council approves the project, it will move forward, and everyone in the improvement district will be billed for the cost. If you are unable to pay, you can apply for the special assessment to be deferred — though this is only granted to property owners who fall in certain income guidelines. These guidelines are complex, but generally require residents to be very-low income as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If the income is low enough, the property owners will not have to pay, and the next property owner will be responsible for it.

Application for deferral is not made until after the project is constructed and residents are billed. To apply, call the Debt Management division of Finance at 316-268-4528.

What happens if I am billed for the special assessment and can’t pay?

If special assessments are not paid, eventually the city will put a lien on the property.

“I’m confident that the city does everything they can to work with people in those situations,” Janzen said. “Especially over time, when the economy has struggled, whatever it might be, the city does whatever they can within their means to help.”

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.