Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Lawrence City Commission to review proposal to enforce sidewalk ordinance, offer some financial assistance

An East Lawrence resident casts a shadow on a sidewalk along Rhode Island Street on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

An East Lawrence resident casts a shadow on a sidewalk along Rhode Island Street on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

March 19, 2017


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.

City assistance

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.

Future repairs

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.

Contact city reporter Rochelle Valverde
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Marilyn Hull 1 year, 3 months ago

These are the HUD income guidelines I found on the city's website

If they use 80% of median income, households with one person would have to have income of less than $41,850 to qualify for assistance. For a family of four, household income would have to be less than $59,750.

It would be helpful if someone in the know would confirm this.

Richard Heckler 1 year, 3 months ago

  1. Consider the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department Comprehensive Master Plan, providing goals for the next 10 years. Staff Memo & Attachments

  2. Consider authorizing a new consultant-led transit transfer hub location study. Staff Memo & Attachments

ACTION: Authorize the initiation of a transit transfer hub location study, if appropriate.

  1. Conduct a public hearing regarding blighted conditions of the property located at 3724 Stetson Drive, and consider adopting Resolution No. 7194, which requires the occupant of the property to abate the cited Property Maintenance Code violations within 20 days of adoption, and further directs City staff to abate the violations if the occupant fails to abate as ordered. Staff Memo & Attachments

ACTION: Conduct public hearing. Adopt Resolution No. 7194, which requires the occupant of the property to abate the cited Property Maintenance Code violations within 20 days of adoption, and further directs City staff to abate the violations if the occupant fails to abate as ordered, if appropriate.

  1. Conduct a public hearing regarding blighted conditions of the property located at 1728 Barker Avenue and consider adopting of Resolution No. 7195, which requires the property owner to abate the cited Property Maintenance Code violations within 20 days of adoption, and further directs City staff to abate the violations if the owner fails to abate as ordered. Staff Memo & Attachments

ACTION: Conduct public hearing. Adopt Resolution No. 7195, which requires the occupant of the property to abate the cited Property Maintenance Code violations within 20 days of adoption, and further directs City staff to abate the violations if the occupant fails to abate as ordered, if appropriate.

  1. Consider awarding Bid No. B1700 for the Solid Waste Facility Phase 2 – 2215 Kresge Road, in the amount of $2,994,853.89 to First Construction, which includes no alternates. Staff Memo & Attachments

ACTION: Award bid No. B1700 for the Public Works Solid Waste Facility Phase 2 – 2215 Kresge Road (CIP# PW17SW1), in the amount of $2,994,853.89, which includes no alternatives, to First Construction and authorize additional expenditures in the Solid Waste Non-bonded Construction Fund of $594,854 to fund the project; OR

Delay awarding Bid No. B1700 for the Public Works Solid Waste Facility Phase 2 and consider Solid Waste facility needs as part of the 2018-2022 Capital Improvement Program.

  1. Consider adopting City Administrative Policy 117, related to sidewalk hazard maintenance and repair requiring the adjacent property owner to make the necessary sidewalk repair to eliminate identified hazards, as set forth in City Code, 16-105. Staff Memo & Attachments

ACTION: Adopt City Administrative Policy 117, if appropriate.

David Holroyd 1 year, 3 months ago

Why not stop funding studies by consultants and use that money and get behind fixing whatever Mr. Markus believes needs fixin! The only reason this is an issue now is because the city commission can't garner anything else to work on.

Look at the item for Solid Waste faciltiy........Phase 2 $2,994,853.69

AND not one person has figured out why the taxes are high, the sewer bills are high and now this elaborate amount of money being spent for a recycling center, isn't it? What say Richard?

Oh, see who gets the $594,854......First Construction....isn't that mighty fine .The same outfit that gets abatements downtown. Why is it that the local contractors have to depend on the generosity of the local taxpayers for a living.?

Maybe First Construction might have a bit of extra concrete to "donate" for some sidewalk repairs? How's about Mr. Boley inquiring of that. After all, he didn't hestitate to ask for money for public housing..called affordable housing.

Oh, wait...First Construction gets the $2 million dollar award? Is that correct?

What did John Stavros ask in return for building the original JC Penney building?

The Journal World should write stories about the past and how things got done. Did John Stavros pay off anyone or did he use his own money?

Clara Westphal 1 year, 3 months ago

The state law states that the owner of the property is responsible for the sidewalks. That is what I was told when I inquired about help with my sidewalk repair.

One slab of walk had collapsed because the city did not use strong enough concrete for a drain that was under it. That made no difference to the city, so it was my expense to fix it.

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

Some states require cities to be responsible for sidewalk damage caused by the city - usually trees in the right-of-way. I don't know about Kansas. It should be clarified in the city's policy, for sure!

Bonnie Uffman 1 year, 3 months ago

Ms. Westphal, there are several cities in Kansas in which the cities assume responsibility for sidewalks. They apparently discovered some flexibility in that state law. I do hope that the city of Lawrence will also get creative.

Jennifer Harrison 1 year, 3 months ago

I'll be damned if I'm forced to fix my sidewalk before the city fixes the crumbling curb alongside my sidewalk and the two foot wide pothole.

RJ Johnson 1 year, 3 months ago

What some of you fail to realize is that is someone trips and gets hurt as a result of your faulty sidewalk, guess who is going to get sued!! Not the City of Lawrence!

Clara Westphal 1 year, 3 months ago

That is true and that is the only reason I had my walks repaired. I have a lot of people walking and running by my property. A lot of children ride their bikes on the walk and I did not want anyone to be hurt; not just because of the threat of being sued.

My son is a runner and he tripped on a broken sidewalk that the city owns on the north side of Dad Perry Park. He notified the city but to my knowledge, it is still not fixed. That was two years ago. .

If I had it to do over again, I would look for a place without sidewalks. They are a curse for a property owner.

Mark Jakubauskas 1 year, 3 months ago

Fundamental problem being, the City has kicked this can down the road for decades now, insisting that the homeowners be responsible for forking over thousands to repair/replace the sidewalks on their property. And that policy has failed, magnificently.

Look, let's be smarter about a solution. The proposed measure is a half-fix; it's not a real solution, but an attempt at a solution. I give the City Manager and staff some credit for at least thinking about the issue and a solution beyond just ham-handed strongarming of property owners via threats. Neglect ain't working for us either. I want nice sidewalks.

Let's accept some truths. Sidewalks last a long time. Longer than roads, I'd bet. So they don't have to be replaced as often. Folks really don't have the funds to replace their sidewalks for the most part - and even if they do, sinking those thousands into concrete isn't a high priority. High cost, low return on the investment. Basic economics.

How about this: Divide the city up into 10-20 districts. Within each district, treat it as a special tax assessment district (we've done this before, right, for developers ?), and for each district, assess a small tax or fee onto the utility bill for sidewalk replacement. Prioritize districts and areas within districts that have large/long stretches of bad sidewalk - it's going to be cheaper for the city to contract to replace a full block-length of sidewalk at once than piecemeal it out here and there and create a patchwork of good/poor sidewalks.

The problem isn't one of concrete, or homeowners who don't maintain their sidewalks, or of the city being too broke to repair/replace them. None of those are true. The problem is that poor city management in the past has exacerbated the problem via neglect; the past/ongoing solution isn't working, isn't equitable, and isn't feasible, and flat-out doesn't make sense; and what we're lacking here is is not funds or enforcement - we're lacking creative solutions.

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

Your post is a good description of our dillema. Your proposed solution does have drawbacks. In general, the sidewalks most in need of repair are in moderate to low income neighborhoods. The special assessments from their benefit districts might not be enough to do the sidewalk repairs.

Then, there's the equity issue. For decades, older neighborhoods have provided property tax revenue with very little return, if any. Compare the attention Kasold has received compared to 19th street, for example. I would like to propose that the whole city be the benefit district and rotate through the 10-20 districts for sidewalk repairs.

Mark Jakubauskas 1 year, 2 months ago

That's entirely reasonable. In the proposal, city staff suggested starting with the northwest part of town, which seems strange to me since that part of town likely has the newest sidewalks in least need of repair/replacement !

Carol Bowen 1 year, 2 months ago

Public Works wanted to test the new policy in an area where it would be a straightforward implementation. That's better than applying different funding sources and policy to each property. Some areas qualify for external funding as well as anything the city will fund.

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