Lawrence city leaders to move forward with survey to ask residents how to handle and pay for sidewalk repairs
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
City leaders will soon ask residents their opinion about a policy that generally requires property owners to help pay for repairs to sidewalks bordering their homes and businesses unless their income qualifies them for city assistance.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received information about how other municipalities handle sidewalk repair, expansion of the city’s repair assistance program, and a plan for asking residents for input through a community survey. After discussing the wording of some of the survey questions, commissioners agreed to have the final draft of the survey come back to them as part of the city manager’s report and thereafter move forward.
The city’s sidewalk repair program has been controversial with some homeowners, and the information was provided to the commission for discussion after some commissioners said in April they were open to reconsidering the program. According to information provided to the commission, about $2.02 million in sidewalk repairs have been made in the first three years of the program, with property owners paying $612,000 toward those repairs.
The majority of the cities reviewed by city staff provided at least a 50/50 cost share program, and Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said that if you do the math, the City of Lawrence has actually paid about 70% of the cost for those who have opted to participate in the city program. Finkeldei said he would not have previously interpreted the program that way, and he didn’t think the city has really presented the program in that way either.
“When I hear people talk about the sidewalk program, that’s not their understanding of the program,” Finkeldei said.
Mayor Courtney Shipley, who has pushed for the city to take full responsibility for sidewalk repairs, pointed out that that doesn’t account for people who decided to make repairs on their own instead of using the city contractor. Shipley expressed support for the city putting a 70/30 cost-share into ordinance, which she said she thought would encourage more people to use the city contractor instead of trying to handle repairs on their own or hiring their own contractor. She said that currently, anytime homeowners are told they have to pay to repair their sidewalk and if they don’t pay the bill it goes on their property taxes, that amounts to a one-two punch.
As part of the current sidewalk repair program, which began in 2019, the city inspects specific sidewalks within a certain area each year to identify tripping hazards. Property owners whose sidewalks are identified for repairs can sign on to have a city contractor complete the repairs, and lower-income homeowners and those with more than one adjacent sidewalk can apply for financial assistance from the city. Engineering Program Manager Jake Baldwin also explained that even if property owners don’t qualify for financial assistance, they only pay for the concrete costs, with the city paying other project-related costs, meaning the city effectively covers some costs for everyone. The city is also financially responsible for damage that is the result of city street trees and city infrastructure, such as manholes. In response to a question from the commission, Baldwin said that while the program so far has worked out to the city paying 70%, that could change year to year depending on factors such as the particulars of the city’s repair bid.
To inform the discussion, city staff compiled a list of nine municipalities in Kansas, their sidewalk maintenance ordinances, and whether they have a sidewalk-assistance program available. Kansas state law generally stipulates that property owners are responsible for the sidewalk adjacent to their properties, but six of the nine municipalities provide funding for at least half of the costs. A seventh has historically had a cost-share program but it has not been funded in recent years. Shipley added that she ran into the mayor of Derby, and was told that city pays for all of the costs.
Income thresholds to qualify for city financial assistance were increased by about 20% for this year’s program. Currently owner-occupied residential property with two or fewer units may qualify if the gross family income is less than $52,950 for an individual; $60,500 for a family of two; $68,050 for a family of three; and $75,600 for a family of four.
The draft of a survey reviewed by the commission asks residents whether the format, funding and pace of the current program should change. The city has 422 miles of existing sidewalks and trails, according to information included with the draft survey. The city estimates that it will take another eight years and $12.4 million to repair the sidewalks that can be repaired, with significantly more money needed for sidewalks that require replacement.
The city replaces rather than repairs sidewalks if more than 20% of a block is in disrepair, and those replacements will be funded through a separate program. The city estimates replacements will cost about $46.5 million and that filling sidewalk gaps identified in the city’s pedestrian plan will cost another $54.4 million. Baldwin said some of those replacement costs could also be assessed to residential property owners.
In other business, the commission:
• Received a presentation from the firm RSM, which conducted the annual outside audit of the city’s finances. The 2021 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report represents a significant improvement over the reports from the previous three years, when auditors found that the city had a “lack of internal controls over financial reporting,” meaning that the city’s processes for tracking its cash, assets and liabilities weren’t reliable enough to ensure that the city had accurate financial records. Those years, auditors had to make tens of millions of dollars in adjustments before signing off on the city’s records as accurate. The city attributed those issues to staff turnover in the finance department and limitations of the city’s financial management system.
The 2021 audit indicates that the internal control issues have been resolved and that the city’s financial records required no significant adjustments. Finkeldei asked what changes had been made to improve the audit results. Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth highlighted improved communication with departments to follow up immediately regarding any issues, as well as an improved month-end closing process. Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was ecstatic about the results, saying it had been a long time coming and that she expected the city’s upcoming update to its financial software would provide improved efficiencies.
• Voted 5-0 to initiate a text amendment to modify city code pertaining to eating and drinking establishments. As the Journal-World recently reported, John Brown’s Underground, which has struggled to adhere to the city’s limits on downtown alcohol sales, is proposing the city make changes to its code to essentially allow additional bars downtown under certain conditions. The proposed text amendment will go to the Planning Commission for consideration. The Planning Commission’s subsequent recommendation will then go to the City Commission, which makes the ultimate decision regarding whether to make any changes.
• Received an addendum to the city manager’s 2023 recommended budget. The recommended budget included a proposal to close the Prairie Park Nature Center building and transfer those staff to other positions within the city, which would have saved the city $337,000. As the Journal-World reported, dozens of people spoke out against the closure, and some commissioners expressed interest in looking at alternative cuts. Commissioners also expressed interested in looking at alternatives to a proposed $100,000 reduction to contracted animal control services provided by the Lawrence Humane Society. The addendum includes alternatives to those cuts as well as other changes. The full addendum is available as part of the commission’s agenda materials. The commission ultimately decides on the city’s budget, and commissioners will hold the budget hearing on Aug. 23.