The questions of how much the City of Lawrence will put toward the $6 million cost of residential sidewalk repairs and where the funding will come from remain unanswered for now.
At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to defer action on a new administrative policy that directed city staff to enforce the city’s longstanding ordinance requiring property owners to pay for repairs to sidewalks that border their properties. However, commissioners didn’t consent to taking the policy off the table, and instead will discuss the issue of sidewalk maintenance as part of the city’s upcoming budget process.
“Essentially what we have to do is see this issue in the context of all the needs, not just infrastructure,” Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said. “We’re talking about having a big conversation about this.”
The proposed policy would have city staff systematically enforce the sidewalk repair ordinance, but would provide funding help for low-income residents, as well as property owners with more than one adjacent sidewalk. As proposed, the city would split the repair costs with property owners with two sidewalks and cover all of the costs for low-income residents, defined as those who make below 80 percent of area median income. Approximately 55 percent of residential properties in the city are rentals, and city aid would only be available for owner-occupied properties, and only if funding was available.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert and Mayor Leslie Soden indicated that they were opposed to the administrative policy as presented. Soden said the enforcement was too complicated, and created a “black hole” of city staff and commission time. Herbert brought up the fact that the sidewalk ordinance, which was adopted in 1979, has never been enforced.
“It begs the question: why has it never been enforced for 30 to 40 years?” Herbert said. “Is it because we lacked initiative? Did we lack backbone? Why has it not been enforced? My theory would be that for the last 40 years, we’ve had commissions or leadership that have said that probably ought not be enforced because it’s probably not equitable.”
Boley said that the reason so many sidewalks around the city needed repairs was that the ordinance was never enforced.
“It’s essentially our failure that’s caused this problem, and we need to solve it,” Boley said. “This is a big deal for our city, and it’s a big deal for the health of our community.”
The commission heard more than an hour of public comment, the vast majority of which was in favor of the city funding sidewalk maintenance as it does other infrastructure. There wasn’t a consensus of where that funding would come from — sales tax, property tax, or some other means — but some commenters said they wanted those options to be discussed.
The commission took note of the comments on funding. Commissioner Mike Amyx brought up the possibility of devoting a portion of the city’s infrastructure sales tax to sidewalks repairs, should voters decide to renew the tax next year.
“The question comes in, how are we going to pay for it? How are we going to ask the public to pay for it?” Amyx said, noting the multitude of funding ideas mentioned. “But three of us have got to come together and say this is what it’s going to be.”
The City Commission will begin discussing potential capital improvement projects next month, and City Manager Tom Markus is scheduled to present his recommended budget at a work session on May 9.
In other business, the commission:
• Voted to defer the decision on a $3 million bid to construct the second phase of the solid waste facility at 2215 Kresge Road. The commission is scheduled to discuss facility needs for the city on April 11, and wished to delay the decision until that time. As an alternative to accepting the bid, the commission could instead decide to reconfigure the three-phase project into a multi-department facility.
• Voted to make a request for proposals for a second study, estimated to cost $50,000, to identify potential locations for a transit hub for the city’s bus service. All but approximately $10,000 of the cost of the study will be covered by a planning grant. Commissioners noted that facility needs (including a transit hub) will be discussed at an April 11 work session, commissioners could subsequently decide. The study would be completed by the end of this year, and will use ridership and other data to identify potential hub locations.
• Voted to accept the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department’s 10-year master plan. The plan lays out four main goals for improvement for the department: programming and services; facilities; organizational efficiency, and financial position. The last goal includes development of a cost recovery model for the department, which will likely result in the increase of some user fees.