For those Lawrence residents whose properties border a crumbling or uneven sidewalk, a new policy aims to provide some financial help to smooth things over.
The city has not backed down from its longstanding ordinance requiring that property owners maintain sidewalks adjacent their property, but it is proposing a new administrative policy that would provide funding help under some circumstances.
The proposed policy would provide financial assistance to low-income residents, as well as cost-sharing grants for properties with more than one adjacent sidewalk. The city will bid out sidewalk repair work annually, and any private property owner whose sidewalks have been marked as hazardous may use the city contractor and the established prices to make repairs.
The Lawrence City Commission will review the policy as part of its meeting Tuesday, and though the idea of putting the onus of sidewalk repairs on property owners has not been popular, city leaders are prepared to hear city staff out.
“I think what we need to do is give staff a fair hearing, because they’ve obviously put some thought into it,” Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said.
In the face of millions of dollars of outstanding sidewalk repair, City Manager Tom Markus has been pushing for the city to better enforce its existing policy.
The city estimates that property owners are obliged to more than $6 million in sidewalk repairs. More than half of residential properties in Lawrence are rentals, so the responsibility for those properties would fall to property management companies or landlords.
The proposed administrative policy sets out two instances where the city could provide funding to help with certain sidewalk repairs. Both forms of financial assistance are only available for owner-occupied residences, and areas of hazardous sidewalks that would be removed and replaced.
One form of assistance is a 50/50 cost-sharing program for property owners that have sidewalks adjacent to more than one side of their property, as is the case with some corner lots. The program has no income restrictions, and applicants for the matching grant must prepay their share.
The other form of financial assistance is for those who meet the low-income guidelines set annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The policy doesn’t indicate what percent of median income would qualify, but it does state funding would be first-come, first-served.
For those who meet the low-income category decided upon, the idea would be to cover all of the costs of removing and replacing hazardous sidewalks, according to Assistant Public Works Director Mark Thiel. Thiel noted the city uses those same income parameters for other home repair grants.
The Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, which includes representatives from about a dozen Lawrence neighborhoods, submitted a letter of opposition to the sidewalk ordinance earlier this year. After reviewing the proposed administrative policy, LAN co-chair Courtney Shipley said she wants to make sure the income guidelines the city decides on don’t leave too many people out. She also said she was concerned about funding being first-come, first-served.
“HUD is a very narrow parameter,” Shipley said. “There are a lot of people who live here who are house-poor: They own a house, they pay their taxes, but barely. That doesn’t mean that they qualify under HUD, so that would leave a lot of people out.”
Boley said he hoped the two assistance programs, in combination with the city’s bidding power, will help address some of the concerns regarding burdensome costs and equity.
“I hope people will listen to the entire plan,” Boley said. “…There are various things that (City Manager Tom Markus) is trying to do and the city staff are trying to do to make this more equitable for the homeowners.”
How will assistance be funded?
City staff have broken the city into eight geographic regions, which they indicate would be a manageable amount of sidewalk to inspect and repair in a single year.
For this year, the city inspected a region in northwest Lawrence, and inspectors marked deficient sidewalks and input their condition into a city database. If the policy were approved, it’s estimated it would cost the city $250,000 this year to cover all repairs in the northwestern region. That includes funding for the cost-sharing and financial assistance programs, as well as repairs that are the city’s responsibility.
Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, said that because the infrastructure and sidewalks in the northwestern region are newer, it would be a good location to initiate a new policy and learn how to implement the program. He said if the policy is adopted, he expects it will evolve over the years.
For this year, the city is proposing that funding come out of the Pedestrian, Bicycle and ADA Ramps CIP project, which is budgeted to receive $450,000. As inspections move to older parts of town in coming years, more funding will likely be required to support the proposed policy.
Across all regions, the city is responsible for $3.3 million in modifications to sidewalk ramps to meet requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as repairs to sidewalk panels out of compliance due to city infrastructure such as manholes, storm sewers or street tree roots.
Commissioner Mike Amyx said that the city may need to look at more sources of funding. Amyx said that the city’s infrastructure sales tax — a 0.30 percent tax that will sunset at the end of next year — should be considered as a potential source of funding for sidewalk repairs in the future.
“I think we need to have that discussion as to how that is to be used, and part of that should be a greater amount used for sidewalks,” Amyx said.
Boley said he’s walked around town and it’s clear that something needs to be done with the sidewalks, but that the costs have to be kept in mind.
“We’re looking at a fair amount of resources, and with the situation the city’s in we have to really watch what we take on,” Boley.
Many of those who oppose the city’s sidewalk ordinance argue that sidewalks are commonly used, and should be treated the same as infrastructure such as streets or sewers. Shipley said she thought the proposed policy is a good start, but she wants to see more dialogue about treating sidewalks as public infrastructure in the future.
“Everyone I’ve personally talked to and every neighborhood we’ve spoken with has said the same thing: How is this different than roads?” Shipley said. “For us, it’s not. A lot of homeowners never walk on their own sidewalks.”
Those who don’t comply
The ordinance requiring that residents maintain sidewalks abutting their property has been on the books for decades, but has never been fully enforced.
The ordinance requires property owners to repair sidewalks that city guidelines deem hazardous, and states that the city can make the repairs for those who don’t comply with repair notices. The city will then bill the owner for the repairs, and if unpaid will add the repair cost to property tax amounts.
Thus far, sidewalk inspections have been complaint-driven, and no further action has been taken after repair notices are sent. The city has indicated that there has been about 60 percent compliance using that system.
The administrative policy provides additional guidance to city staff when it comes to enforcing the existing ordinance. For property owners who don’t comply with repair notices within 60 days, city staff will prepare a resolution for the City Commission to condemn the sidewalks and make the necessary repairs.
For condemned sidewalks, the cost of repairs will include interest and a 10 percent administrative fee, according to the proposed policy. Thiel clarified that the interest would be minimal, equal to the bond interest rate used to finance the city’s capital improvements.
A conversation starter
The City Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to approve the new administrative policy at its meeting Tuesday. Boley expressed confidence in Markus’ experience addressing such issues, and that the policy will be duly considered.
“We hired a city manager with a lot of experience, and it’s paying off for the city in a lot of ways,” Boley said. “I’m hoping it will pay off here, too.”
Shipley said she thinks this commission has been really good at looking at things a little bit closer, and she hopes commissioners take the opportunity to do that regarding the proposed policy, as well as alternatives for handling sidewalk maintenance in general.
“I don’t think it has to be controversial. I don’t think it has to be difficult,” Shipley said. “I think we just want to see what they have to say.”
Amyx said he thought the proposed policy is a pretty comprehensive look at the question of sidewalk maintenance, but he expects commissioners to offer their own ideas as well.
“I think it’s a good starting place for the commission to start having discussions,” Amyx said. “Whether or not decisions will be made on Tuesday, I don’t know. I would say at this point it’s a starting place, and we’ll go from there.”
The City Commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.