Editorial: Fixing sidewalks

Proposed city policy could work well with a few tweaks to lessen the financial pain for property owners.

City commissioners should take steps to lessen the burden that homeowners face with repairing sidewalks on their properties.

At a meeting today, city commissioners will discuss a policy proposed by city staff that would allow the city, in cases where a property owner fails to repair a damaged sidewalk within a specific time frame, to repair the sidewalk and add the cost of the repairs to the owner’s property tax bill.

Under the proposed policy, the cost would 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.” 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.

City ordinance makes property owners responsible for sidewalks on their property, but historically the city has not been aggressive in enforcing the ordinance. Currently, the city notifies property owners when the city becomes aware that a section of sidewalk needs to be repaired. About 60 percent of property owners respond to the notice by moving ahead with repairs, leaving a significant amount of repairs undone.

The city estimates that there are $6.6 million in sidewalk repairs that need to be made.

Several groups are opposed to the sidewalk policy, including the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, Lawrence Pedestrian Coalition and LiveWell Lawrence. The groups argue that sidewalks are public infrastructure that should be funded by the greater community.

But the city simply doesn’t have the funds to address the repairs and phasing in repairs over an extended period of time isn’t going to work, Commissioner Matthew Herbert said. “The sidewalks are going to continue to degrade and infrastructure is going to continue to be poor,” Herbert said.

But what the city can do is provide more flexibility for property owners. For example, the city could get rid of the 10 percent administrative fee the policy tacks onto the cost of sidewalk repairs. Also, the city should offer to amortize the cost of the sidewalk repairs for up to 10 years, instead of just four.

Finally, the city should make funds available to assist qualified low-income property owners in making sidewalk repairs.

The city has been discussing how to address sidewalk repairs for nearly two years now. The time has come to move forward with a policy. The proposal by city staff, if modified to lower the cost and offer more time to reimburse the city, is a fair and reasonable approach.