Stillwater tries to tax residents -- while giving a country club a break

A church on the same street was hit with a $19,000 assessment. But the Stillwater Country Club got to skate for free.

A church on the same street was hit with a $19,000 assessment. But the Stillwater Country Club got to skate for free. Stillwater Country Club Facebook page

Stillwater’s Moore Street was in need of love. In 2015, the city started an improvement project that would fix up aging streets, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, and sewer and water lines. It was supposed to be a $2.2 million package.

Since the residents living on the south side of West Moore Street were expected to benefit from the work, they were obligated to pay for some of it. Some neighbors were assessed for about $3,800 – others as much as $7,500. A nearby nursing home was on the hook too, and the First Methodist Church was hit for nearly $19,000, according to the Pioneer Press. Everybody had to chip in.

With one notable exception: the scenic and storied Stillwater Country Club, which requires a $100 application fee just to get on the waiting list. Back in 2017, Stillwater Director of Public Works Shawn Sanders told the Press that the club wouldn’t be assessed because it would receive “no benefit” from the roadwork.

You may be wondering: How does a nursing home or a church benefit from a road in ways a country club doesn’t? What about club members, employees, or the various service trucks that regularly trundle down it?

That’s exactly what 23 residents were wondering when they took the city of Stillwater to court and appealed the assessments.

“This case is a near-perfect example of how a relatively simple process that courts give great latitude to cities to conduct can nonetheless not be followed, not be informed, arbitrarily exclude parties, and ultimately result in a failed process and an unconstitutional tax,” attorney Alan Kantrud wrote in court documents. There was no good reason, he said, for the city not to assess the club, and no good reason to claim it wouldn’t benefit from a new road.

“You can fight city hall. People shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. What the city did was wrong,” resident Carol Gapen told the Press

Ultimately, the neighborhood scored a win – or, at least, a partial win. The city settled on Thursday and allowed them to pay half their original totals. The city would also cover the costs for depositions, expert reports, and mediation. 

But it’s not a legal slam dunk for residents. Mayor Ted Kozlowski says he still thinks the city “didn’t do anything wrong.”

"At the end of the day, all this did was cost our residents a pile of money," he says. And it "won't change anything."  

He says the residents didn't have to pay more just because the club got a break, and that he's not entirely sure why the club wasn't assessed. It was the decision of "a city attorney that has since retired" and a city appraiser that "had been with [Stillwater] a long time." But even if the club had been assessed, the benefit would probably have been something like $5,000, which is "pretty minimal." 

He's confident the city would have won if it had its day in court, but the cost of the lawsuit was prohibitive. 

"If it were me personally, I would have gone all the way with it," he says.