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Mail prices take bite out of neighborhood projects

Sean Ryan
sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

Milwaukee must spend $4 mailing letters just to ask people to kick in $10 in special taxes for new streetlights, landscaping and other extra services.

“That’s just cost-prohibitive if you are talking about 16,000 properties,” said Milwaukee Alderman Robert Donovan, who is trying to change the mailing rules. “The cost outweighs basically everything that we would be trying to generate.”

A 2005 state law lets people agree to pay extra property taxes to cover infrastructure improvements or such services as overtime for police officers to patrol the neighborhood. The system is called a neighborhood improvement district.

But the law also requires each property owner receive two notification letters, and those letters must be delivered by certified mail. Certified letters require a signature from the recipient, meaning it can cost as much as $4 to send both letters.

The mailing costs must come out of the overall municipal budget, requiring communities to divert money from citywide services to improve one particular area. The city of Milwaukee has one neighborhood improvement district, which is in the Pabst Brewery redevelopment. There are only 14 properties in the district.

But Donovan said there are thousands of properties in the south side neighborhood where he wants to create a district. So he is trying to persuade city officials to push for a state law change so the letters can be sent by standard mail at 44 cents apiece. Without the state law change, he said, his constituents cannot create the district.

“It’s something that, best-case scenario, could not occur in 2010,” he said of getting the district into operation.

Donovan’s city resolution, which was passed Tuesday by the Milwaukee Common Council, stirred up a debate over whether traditional mail is an unreliable and outdated way to share information with voters.

“There are so many forms of communication that have supplanted certified mail,” said Alderman Robert Bauman. Bauman supported the change and said some people do not even go to the post office to pick up certified mail for fear of getting bills or other bad news.

Alderman Joe Davis, who cast the lone vote against Donovan’s plan to lobby for a state law change, said noncertified letters end up in the junk mail pile.

“I know that there is a significant amount of mail that gets lost based upon information from my constituents,” he said.

Davis echoed concerns that state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, and sponsor of the 2005 law, shared with the city last week. Richards, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday, testified that certified mail catches the attention of homeowners facing a new tax assessment.

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