As the clocks ticks toward the March 15 primary election, where Brookfield voters will decide whether or not to allow the village to issue $22 million in bonds to repair residential streets, officials are running headlong into a historic roadblock that threatens to derail the referendum.

At the last two town hall meetings, on Jan. 23 and Feb. 10, held to provide information about the need for the bond issue and how it will be implemented, Brookfield’s decision in the 1990s to create special service areas to pay for street construction on the village’s south end remains as divisive as ever.

“From 1994, I paid the street [assessment] to 2011,” said a woman who lives on the south side in a former special service area at the Jan. 23 town hall. She paid more than $500 per year for that special assessment.

“You divided Brookfield north and south. When the south made the streets, you put a mortgage to us. When the north made the streets, nobody paid a penny in taxes,” she said.

The five special service areas on the south end surrounding Ehlert Park, which were phased in over several years beginning in about 1991, lasted for 20 years. Four of the five have been paid off. 

Special Service Area 6, bounded roughly by Shields Avenue on the north, Plainfield Road on the south, Custer Avenue on the east and Forest Avenue on the west, will expire in 2017.

And just as those residents have paid off the debt that brought curbed streets and storm sewers to the neighborhood, they may get socked with another payment.

“We just got through paying for our streets for 20 years,” said a south side resident at the Feb. 10 town hall. “Now you expect us to pay for another 10 years to fix everybody else’s streets. We paid for 100 percent of our street.”

Even though many of the streets in the former special service areas, now 20 or more years old, will be among the first to be repaired if the referendum is successful, some residents are still resentful.

Then there’s Special Service Area 7, which dates to the year 2000 and won’t expire until 2019. It’s a north side special service area and includes the 3300 and 3400 blocks of Vernon, Sunnyside, Oak and Park avenues.

Unlike the south side ones, Special Service Area 7 was formed to repair already existing, completed streets that were crumbling.

Some residents there also complained of the “double burden” of having to pay the special assessment and a tax to repair streets elsewhere in the village. At the Feb. 10 town hall, residents of that area called for their special assessments to be abated or for their alleys to get paved as recompense.

More than a decade ago, Brookfield officials decided that it would no longer use the special service area model for street improvements, opting instead to look at road conditions throughout the village, rate the conditions of the roadways and then target the worst for improvement moving forward.

The policy allows for better planning, lower construction costs and will allow the village to use other funds, such as motor fuel taxes, to maintain new roads in order to extend their life over time.

But getting people who have just finished or are still paying for special service areas to see the benefit of the new policy is proving to be a challenge, especially since the issue has been used as a political wedge in the past.

“It’s probably been the single biggest issue to divide the town,” Kit Ketchmark, village president, said in a phone interview last week. “You just see the politics that’s been played in this town for decades.”

The goal with the referendum, said Ketchmark, is to get the entire village on the same program for road repairs for the first time in its 123-year history.

“We all have to get to the same point, and that’s the tricky part,” Ketchmark said. “If we can move on from here, we can really pull the town together. If we can’t, it will continue to divide the town.”

If the referendum fails, Plan B for the village will be to pay for street repairs when money is available. That won’t allow the village to keep up with the rate at which streets are deteriorating and will end up costing more money in the long run, since more streets will need to be reconstructed instead of simply being resurfaced, officials say.

“The issue is how do you move forward on this?” Ketchmark asked the crowd of 60 or so people gathered at the Feb. 10 town hall. “How does your street get repaved the next time?

“We’re all in this together.”

A quick look at Brookfield’s south side SSAs

When the neighborhoods surrounding Ehlert Park on Brookfield’s south end were being developed from the 1960s into the 1980s, the village made a critical decision in allowing developers to build homes without having to install the accompanying infrastructure — complete streets and a sewer system — needed to support them.

Initially, that was part of the deal. But the geology of the area — where the limestone bedrock is very close to the surface — made installing sewers difficult and expensive. 

While the village escrowed money from the developers, presumably a premium paid for by those buying new homes in the area for the purpose of building the streets and sewers, the amount was not nearly enough to cover the costs for the improvements and they did not get made.

Streets were like rural roads — gravel sealed with a coat of oil. They didn’t drain into sewers.

By the late 1980s, the infrastructure still hadn’t been installed and, according to the village manager at the time, James Mann, a judge ordered Brookfield to refund the money collected for infrastructure improvements to the property owners at that time.

Stuck with the job of coming up with a plan to solve the problem, the village created special service areas to build the streets and sewers from scratch. The residents in the special service areas saw the debt payments for those improvements on their property tax bills for 20 years. 

It was a familiar solution, said Mann, and one Brookfield had employed to build the village’s infrastructure stretching back to the 1920s.

“Everybody living on residential streets paid for those improvements, all the way back to the pre-Depression era,” Mann said of the way Brookfield infrastructure was installed as subdivisions were developed.

Some of those original streets, which were concrete, have never been resurfaced and are still considered to be in fair condition.

But the asphalt streets in the former special service areas, some paid off just a few years ago, are beginning to crumble. While they are not considered the worst streets in the village, they’ll be some of the first to be resurfaced if the March 15 referendum passes, because they’ll be some of the easiest to engineer and repair.

The goal, said officials, is to repair those streets before they deteriorate to the point where they have to be reconstructed, which will increase the cost dramatically.

—Bob Uphues

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