The disrepair of some sidewalks in Lawrence is no secret, and the city is moving forward with a plan to enforce an ordinance requiring that property owners maintain them.
“It’s really been an accumulation of neglect,” City Manager Tom Markus said at the City Commission’s most recent meeting. “We’ve let this go on for way too long, and so now we have the proverbial elephant sidewalk, and trying to take that one bit at a time is a difficult challenge for us. But, like most things, you’ve got to start some time.”
The city estimates there is approximately $9.4 million in sidewalk deficiencies in the city, made up of about $6.1 million in sidewalk repairs and $3.3 million in sidewalk ramps required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the city is responsible for installing the ramps, sidewalk repairs are the responsibility of property owners.
For decades, the city has had an ordinance requiring that residents maintain sidewalks on their property — replacing them when sections break or become uneven — but it has not been widely enforced. Inspections have been done on a complaint-basis, and notices asking residents to fix their sidewalks were not followed up on. Still, there was about 60 percent compliance, and Markus told commissioners more enforcement could make a significant difference.
“I think you’ll find that that 60 percent number will grow if they understand that we’re serious about following up and making sure that these improvements are made,” Markus said. He noted that landlords own about 55 percent of residential properties in Lawrence.
But repairs can be costly, and individual property owners are already expressing concerns. The city has estimated that replacing a sidewalk that is 5 feet across costs about $6 per square foot. That means a sidewalk that is 40 feet long would cost well more than $1,000 to replace.
Putting procedures and staff in place to enforce the ordinance is part of an implementation plan created by city staff, which was presented to commissioners Oct. 18. The plan outlines the actions recommended by staff to accomplish requests made by the Pedestrian-Bicycle Issues Task Force in its final report, which the commission received in May. The plan said staff looked at several options to deal with sidewalk repair, but operated “with the understanding that creating a new sales tax or property tax was unpopular.” Staff noted repair costs could be unaffordable for some families, and that a deferral option is being evaluated.
The task force didn’t propose a solution for handling sidewalk repairs, but said the issue needed to be discussed and a new maintenance program put in place by 2017.
That discussion has begun, and some task force members don’t agree with the city’s plan for addressing the problem. Bonnie Uffman said she thinks requiring property owners to pay for repairs puts a disproportionate burden on those with lower income, and that repairs should be the responsibility of the city.
“To me, the equity issue is mind-boggling,” Uffman said. “To me, that’s just wrong.”
Some property owners agree, saying that they see sidewalks as public infrastructure no different from city streets. John Bodle lives in East Lawrence, which like many of the city’s older neighborhoods is lined with sidewalks on both sides of the street. Many of those sidewalks are deteriorating, and Bodle said that he doesn’t see sidewalks as serving an individualized benefit.
“I think that should be an expense shared by all of us,” Bodle said.
“I get precious little benefit out of this 50 feet of sidewalk,” Bodle said, gesturing to the sidewalk running in front of his home. “I get every bit as much benefit out of the next 50 feet, 100 feet and so forth of sidewalk. When I want to walk downtown, I have to walk across all these sidewalks, and that benefit is for all of us.”
However, the city may be limited in what it can do, said City Commissioner Matthew Herbert. Herbert said that state law defines sidewalks as part of the individual’s property, and that he sees the current city ordinance as in line with that statute, as well as being fair for those who have already complied with the ordinance. Still, Herbert said he understood the argument that sidewalks should be considered public infrastructure.
“I completely get that, I think the city manager completely gets that; it’s a logical argument,” Herbert said. “The problem is we’re dealing with a state law that says differently, and we’re also dealing with $9 million worth of sidewalks in the community that are in need of repair.”
Other reactions to the city’s plan are more nuanced. Marilyn Hull, chair of the task force, said they found that other solutions wouldn’t work in Lawrence. For instance, the creation of a sidewalk utility fee was evaluated, but it was determined that it would only be legal by Kansas statute if property owners voluntarily opted in.
Hull said she realized that enforcing the current ordinance may not be very popular with residents, but that city-supported repair would be expensive for the taxpayer.
“It’s really important for the entire community to have good sidewalks for everyone,” Hull said. “In the past, the sidewalk ordinance has not been uniformly enforced, so there is a need for something to happen. We looked at other communities and didn’t come up with a program that would work for Lawrence.”
Part of the reason for that is the scope of the repairs. Herbert said that because the sidewalks are in such widespread disrepair, an opt-in program would not work to generate the millions of dollars needed. He also said that in other cities it was found that property owners would only opt-in until their sidewalk was repaired.
“The problem is that those policies never really work,” Herbert said. “What ends up happening is, people who have sidewalks in disrepair opt in until they get their sidewalk repaired by the city, and then at some point they opt out, because their liabilities have now been covered.”
The city’s implementation plan includes a program for regular sidewalk inspections, as well as ideas to minimize the financial impact for low-income property owners.
City staff proposed that property owners be given the option to contract with the city to complete the repairs, which would be less expensive than doing so privately. Staff is also evaluating the idea of a deferral program in which the city would pay the upfront costs of repair and a lien would be placed on the property. The city would be reimbursed for the sidewalk repair and the lien paid off once the property was sold.
While a proposal for a deferral program has not been formalized, Vice Mayor Leslie Soden said they need to figure out some way to help with the financial burden of sidewalk repairs. Soden said she thought that could be through deferral or setting up a grant program, perhaps similar to the income-based weatherization grants offered through the city.
“It is important to start enforcing the sidewalk policy, but we do understand that there are financial challenges for a lot of property owners,” Soden said. “And so the city is looking at offering ways to help with the financial impact.”
Bodle, though, said he thought the idea of a deferral program does not address the issue, but instead “sidesteps it.”
“It allows us to ignore the immediacy of it,” Bodle said. “It allows the cash-poor homeowner — and there are many, especially here in East Lawrence — to not want to fight with the city about it, because, ‘Oh, I don’t have to pay for it now.’”
Uffman also didn’t think deferral was a good solution, noting that for those with low income, their home could be their only asset and deferral only delays the financial burden.
As a task force member who studied the topic, Uffman said she realized there were many issues to be dealt with in order come up with a solution. Still, Uffman said she thought city planning staff could come up with something better than the deferral plan.
“If there were easy answers the task force would have come up with it — I would know the answer,” Uffman said. “They’re not easy answers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a better answer.”
The city’s implementation plan will go to the newly created Transportation Commission for review, which will also make recommendations. Both sets of recommendations will return to the City Commission at an upcoming meeting for further review.