Why are public sidewalks a private responsibility? A number of Lawrence residents are asking that question as city staff members consider stepping up enforcement of ordinances that require property owners to maintain and, if needed, replace deteriorating sidewalks adjacent to their property. City employees currently are marking the sidewalks that are in such poor shape that they cause a safety hazard. And they are asking city commissioners for guidance in how to pay for the necessary repairs.
Although city ordinances are clear that property owners must pay for sidewalk maintenance, the ordinance traditionally has been enforced only if someone complains about the sidewalk. The city can repair the sidewalk and bill the owner for the expense, but that poses a hardship on some homeowners, especially in less affluent parts of town. A sidewalk in front of a $75,000 home costs approximately the same per square foot as the sidewalk in front of a $750,000 home, but the owner would be far less able to pay.
That raises questions about why owners are responsible for sidewalks in the first place. Sidewalks are a public facility for use by anyone. Homeowners don't own the sidewalk and can't restrict it for their own use. They may occasionally use the sidewalk themselves, but by far the greater amount of traffic comes from other pedestrians. In many residential areas, sidewalks are only located on one side of the street. So people on that side of the street bear the full cost of maintaining the sidewalk while their neighbors across the street pay nothing.
Public sidewalks are no less a part of the city's infrastructure than are streets that are maintained by money contributed by taxpayers citywide. It doesn't seem right that we make individual property owners pay for maintaining them.
City commissioners seem split on this issue. A story in Friday's Journal-World quoted one commissioner as saying the city at large should pay for part of the sidewalk repairs. Another commissioner was willing to work out a payment plan but said the responsibility should stay with the property owner.
A case certainly could be made that sidewalks are a public responsibility that should be fully funded by the public, but the cost of implementing such a plan may be prohibitive. Perhaps neighborhood benefit districts would be an option for paying the bill. Whatever the plan, city commissioners should do what they can to help mitigate the financial burden they are placing on individual property owners to maintain sidewalks.