The city of Lawrence should be careful where it steps in trying to deal with sidewalk repairs throughout the city.
The city estimates there is approximately $6.1 million in needed sidewalk repairs in Lawrence, where a sidewalk ordinance requires property owners to maintain, repair and replace sections of sidewalk that abut their properties. At present, city enforcement of the ordinance amounts to responding to complaints and issuing notices asking residents to fix the damaged sidewalks. Compliance with those notices is about 60 percent, the city estimates.
City staff’s recommendation is to get more aggressive in enforcing the sidewalk ordinance, with more aggressive reviews of city sidewalks and better follow-up to make sure necessary repairs are completed.
“I think you’ll find that that 60 percent number will grow if (property owners) understand that we’re serious about following up and making sure that these improvements are made,” Markus said.
But is more aggressive enforcement really the right approach? Sidewalk repairs can be costly. The city estimates 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.
Property owners, landlords in particular, are likely to balk at the stepped-up enforcement. Many feel that sidewalks are a benefit to all city residents and that all should share the cost of repairs. Others simply can’t afford the repairs. City staff suggested using a deferral program in which the city would complete the sidewalk repairs and place a lien on the property that would be paid back if and when the property is sold. Such a deferral program seems risky and unworkable.
Perhaps the city could simplify its sidewalk program. First, not all sidewalks are equal. Some are more important to pedestrian use than others. Prioritizing repairs according to usage could help ensure the most important sidewalk repairs get made first.
Second, the complaint-driven program appears to be working. A better job of follow-up is necessary when notices are issued, but otherwise, using complaints to identify major sidewalk problems seems to be a reasonable approach.
Third, the city should consider creating and seeding a grant fund to assist low-income residents with sidewalk repairs.
Safe and well-maintained sidewalks are important to any city, but so too are the taxes and fees residents must pay. The city of Lawrence owes it to residents to be careful not to place undue and unnecessary financial burdens on residents to force sidewalk repairs unless those repairs are absolutely necessary.