Lawrence property owners who don’t comply with city notices to repair their sidewalks could soon see the cost for those repairs added to their tax bills.
At their meeting Tuesday, city commissioners will discuss an administrative policy proposed by city staff that lays out how the city would systematically enforce its existing ordinance that requires property owners to repair hazardous sidewalks adjacent to their properties. If property owners fail to make the repairs within a certain timeframe, the city would make the repairs and could add the cost to residents’ property tax bill.
Local neighborhood representatives say the policy is inequitable because it unfairly burdens some residents for infrastructure that is used by everyone. Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods Chair Courtney Shipley pointed out that not all neighborhoods have sidewalks on both sides of the street, and some lack any sidewalks. She said forcing some homeowners into debt for infrastructure that is publicly used is not acceptable, and that other cities have found solutions.
“There is a solution, we just need to figure out what it is for us,” Shipley said. “The current policy does not reflect what Lawrence is. Lawrence is not forcing someone into debt.”
LAN is one of several local groups, including the Lawrence Pedestrian Coalition and LiveWell Lawrence, that say sidewalks are public infrastructure and are asking the city to fund sidewalk repairs equitably instead of charging those who happen to have a sidewalk adjacent to their property. But city leaders say there isn’t money in the city’s budget to take on what is estimated to be $6.6 million in sidewalk repairs. The policy does leave the door open for the commission to provide financial assistance to homeowners with low income or more than one adjacent sidewalk, but does not require it. If the city does move forward with the policy, the local groups are asking that costs are offset for all those who qualify.
After years of the city not fully enforcing its ordinance requiring adjacent property owners to pay for repairs, the disrepair of Lawrence sidewalks has grown widespread, especially in older neighborhoods. The city has operated on a complaint-based system and didn’t take action beyond sending warning letters.
Local groups have researched how other cities handle sidewalk maintenance and proposed various funding options, including using property tax, establishing a fee charged to all residents on their utility bills, or at least setting aside enough funding to provide a 50-50 cost share program to all residents. LAN includes representatives from about a dozen neighborhoods, and Shipley said she hasn’t spoken to any property owner who finds the city’s approach acceptable. She said it shouldn’t be local organizations’ job to come up with a way to fund the repairs, and that instead the commission should give equitable funding options their due consideration.
“They need to have that discussion,” Shipley said. “There needs to be leadership from the commission to have that discussion.”
The city is still responsible for fixing sidewalks adjacent to its property and the estimated $3.3 million cost of installing additional sidewalk ramps to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mayor Stuart Boley said the city does not have the money to cover the backlog of repairs throughout the city with existing resources and that he is also leery of taking on the liability. Boley said he understands the argument that sidewalks are public infrastructure, but he is not interested in proposing another tax increase to fund sidewalk repairs citywide. He said if the city decides to take on the responsibility, it should be a voter-petitioned referendum.
“If the city were to take on the obligation, it really should be the voters that make that decision, because you are expanding the role of government,” Boley said.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen agreed that new funding would have to be identified for the city to take on sidewalk maintenance. If that is the case, Larsen said residents should be able to vote on the matter.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert also said that for the city to take on the repairs is not financially feasible. When asked if the city could do so in a phased approach, handling the sidewalks similar to how it handles streets and other infrastructure, Herbert said he doesn’t think the city would ever be able to catch up to the repairs or succeed in bringing all sidewalks into good condition.
“The sidewalks are going to continue to degrade and infrastructure is going to continue to be poor,” Herbert said.
The ordinance requiring that residents maintain sidewalks next to their property has been on the books for decades, and it states that the city can make the repairs for those who don’t comply with repair notices.
The administrative policy states the city would annually bid out sidewalk repairs and would allow property owners to make use of the contractor and price established by the bid. For those who don’t make repairs when requested, the policy lays out how the city would systematically enforce 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. The city will then make the necessary repairs and bill the property owner.
The cost will include repairs, a 10 percent administrative fee, interest equal to the rate the city pays on the bonds, and “any other cost the city may have directly incurred as a result of making the repair,” according to the policy. If the property owner doesn’t pay the bill outright within 30 days, it will be added to property tax bills and can be paid in four annual installments.
Although LAN, the Pedestrian Coalition and LiveWell have all indicated their first choice is for the city to take on repairs through an equitably funded system, the groups have also said that if the city is going to move forward with enforcement, there should be substantial assistance available, especially for low-income homeowners.
The possibility of financial assistance
Though the policy is very detailed in how it would enforce the ordinance, it is less so regarding what financial assistance would look like in practice.
The policy leaves open the possibility of financial assistance for residents who own and occupy their home and are low-income or have more than one adjacent sidewalk, but the policy does not guarantee such a program. Specifically, the policy states that the City Commission “may” fund such assistance “if funding is available.” It also notes that assistance would be first come, first served.
The policy states that the city will use annually set guidelines from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine who qualifies as low-income. Specifically, Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, told the Journal-World that those homeowners who have more than one sidewalk or who make below 80 percent of area median family income would be able to apply to the program. For last year, that is $39,800 for one person, $45,450 for two people and $51,150 for three people.
If the policy is adopted, LAN, LiveWell and the Pedestrian Coalition all hold the position that, in the very least, all costs should be offset for those homeowners who qualify under the HUD guidelines.
Shipley said LAN would like to see the city take on a 50-50 cost share and cover all costs for low-income homeowners under HUD. LiveWell’s statement says that at a minimum, it supports changes to the policy that ensure costs are entirely offset for all HUD-qualified homeowners, that affordable costs to property owners are guaranteed through a city bid process and that the city does not draw from money already identified for bikeways and pedestrian improvements. Like LiveWell, the Lawrence Pedestrian Coalition states it does not want the funding for sidewalk repairs to draw from the funds set aside for new pedestrian infrastructure.
PedCo Facilitator Gary Webber said if the City Commission provides aid to those with more than one sidewalk and all low-income residents, then the coalition would be satisfied, though Webber was clear that was not the coalition’s first choice.
“PedCo position has always been that we need to repair the sidewalks and do it in an equitable manner,” Webber said. “… But if you repair the sidewalks and protect the lowest-income folks, we feel that that basically meets the criteria.”
Herbert shares some of the groups’ concerns about the financial assistance aspect of the policy. He likened it to the city’s utility assistance program, which after Herbert asked city staff was found to be only serving 86 people, or a fraction of 1 percent of all utility customers.
“I think saying that we have assistance available, but not actually declaring how that will look and how that will play out should leave people with a degree of skepticism,” Herbert said.
He said he thinks the policy is a good compromise, but the provision regarding financial assistance needs to be clearly defined, adding that “if the amount is $5,000, that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
When asked about the financial assistance provision, Larsen also said she thinks it needs to be discussed further. Larsen said she is not sure where the safety net should start and end, but that it would be hard to guarantee funding every year to cover all those who qualify.
“To guarantee it every single year, that would be stretching it for me,” Larsen said. But, Larsen said some type of mechanism for those with low income should be clearly established.
Boley, Larsen or Herbert did not outright say that they would support the new policy, but all agreed that something different needs to be done. Going into Tuesday’s discussion, Boley said he is going to keep an open mind, and he expects to hear from the public, city staff and commission and bring those views together to craft a policy that will work for Lawrence.
The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.