Editorial: Sidewalk policy is sensible
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Some northwest Lawrence residents soon may be forced to pay for sidewalk repairs on their properties. At least, that is what the letters from City Hall say.
City Hall officials probably should soon expect letters (or, more likely, Facebook posts) from residents arguing how the city ought to be responsible for paying for repairs to sidewalks. After all, sidewalks are public spaces. Why should private individuals have to pay to maintain them?
City commissioners and other City Hall leaders ought to resist any temptation to back down from the city’s policy that property owners pay for sidewalk repairs. The city has created a common-sense policy for sidewalk repairs, and now is the time for the city to stick by it.
The city is expecting property owners to pay for repairs to sidewalks, but it also has created a system so that people who have financial difficulties can apply for a city grant to cover the repairs. The city also will allow property owners to use the city’s contractor to complete the work, which presumably will be able to do the work for a lower price than a contractor that homeowners may hire on their own. Plus, the city will give those property owners who have two sidewalks on their property — think of a corner lot, for example — a break on how much they have to pay for sidewalk repairs.
What property owners, however, won’t be able to do is simply ignore the city’s letter asking that the sidewalk be repaired. In the past, for some odd reason, you could. The city used to send letters saying that it had received a complaint about the property owner’s sidewalk and that it needed to be repaired. When the property owner didn’t repair the sidewalk, the city generally did nothing.
But now the city has decided to buy some dentures for that toothless dog. If property owners ignore the letter, the city will have the work done to repair the sidewalk and add the cost of the work onto the property tax bill of the owners.
Residents in northwest Lawrence are the test case for the new program. The city is starting with sections of town rather than trying to do the entire community all at once. This first round likely will show where the program can be improved. But, in general, the program seems to be pretty well thought out.
Some of you likely disagree and probably point to the old argument that equates city sidewalks with city streets. Just like a city street, anyone can use a city sidewalk. But government pays for the maintenance of streets. Why should private property owners pay for the maintenance of city sidewalks?
The answer is simple but potentially politically perilous: Sidewalks aren’t as important as streets.
Sidewalks don’t carry as much commerce as streets, sidewalks don’t carry as much emergency vehicle traffic as streets, sidewalks don’t create a network that allows you travel from city to city or state to state, and the number of users on a sidewalk is almost always less than the number of users on a street.
Now, saying sidewalks aren’t as important as streets is much different from saying sidewalks aren’t important. They are. They get people to work, kids to school, allow for a healthy form of transportation and have many other benefits.
The benefits of pedestrian and bike travel have gotten a lot more attention and a lot more praise in Lawrence in recent years. That is good. The city is a better place if it is more walkable and bike-friendly.
But that doesn’t mean that government needs to take on a whole new set of responsibilities and fund every repair of every sidewalk. That would be millions of dollars in new spending. Taxes either would be raised, programs cut, or, more likely, both. In Lawrence, it is easy to see how government funding for sidewalk repairs could cut into government funding for street repairs. That would be a bad trade.
In many cases, sidewalk repairs are cheap enough and infrequent enough that a homeowner can manage the responsibility. Government should step in and solve problems that people on their own can’t. For most people, this isn’t one of them. For those people who truly can’t afford it, government should help. The city has created such a system.
If the city were to take over funding all sidewalk repairs, we may have smoother sidewalks, but we likely would have a bumpier path of a different type — one that leads to higher taxes and worse roads.