City leaders suggest new ideas for handling sidewalk repairs

photo by: Nick Krug

A crumbling section of a Lawrence neighborhood sidewalk is pictured in this file photo from Feb. 28, 2018.

City leaders have a couple of new ideas when it comes to the contentious topic of sidewalk repair, including the creation of a sidewalk insurance program and a gradual city takeover of maintenance responsibilities.

The city adopted a policy in 2018 to administer its sidewalk repair ordinance, which had been on the books for decades but had not been strongly enforced. The ordinance requires all property owners — businesses, landlords and homeowners — to pay to repair the sidewalks running along their properties. Under the policy, certain homeowners qualify for financial assistance from the city. Many homeowners spoke out against the approach when the city began fully enforcing the ordinance last year.

Commissioner Courtney Shipley, who took her seat on the commission in December, recently suggested the city consider an optional sidewalk insurance program, and Mayor Jennifer Ananda wants to discuss the city taking over financial responsibility for sidewalk repairs as inspections and repairs are completed. The commission will discuss both suggestions at an upcoming meeting.

Ananda noted the opposition from some residents regarding how the city has been handling sidewalks, and said she is open to Shipley’s idea and any other possible solutions to the city’s sidewalk maintenance issues. She said the commission needs to figure out what works best for residents and for the city government.

“All we know right now is that what we have has not been received well,” Ananda said. “It’s our obligation to at least look at what different options look like.”

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For several decades, the city only sent sidewalk repair notices on a complaint basis and there was minimal followup. The limited enforcement resulted in the deterioration of vast sections of sidewalks, and city staff has estimated that making all the necessary repairs would cost tens of millions of dollars. The city’s 2018 policy sets aside funding to replace sidewalks damaged by city infrastructure, including street trees, and provides financial assistance for low-income homeowners and those with more than one sidewalk.

The city was broken into nine zones to begin enforcing the longstanding ordinance. The first enforcement zone was in northwest Lawrence, where there was strong opposition to both the practice of requiring adjacent property owners to pay for repairs and the city’s enforcement methods, as the Journal-World reported. Changes were subsequently made to the city’s process to address various complaints, including a lack of a clear appeal process, a complicated process for opting into using the city contractor, and unclear definitions regarding which sidewalk defects required repairs. The city began inspections last fall in the second enforcement zone, in southeast Lawrence, and those repairs will be made this year.

Shipley, who campaigned in part against the sidewalk ordinance, says she still believes that sidewalks should be city infrastructure and the financial responsibility of the city. On the day that Shipley was seated on the commission, she proposed that the city pause the sidewalk repair program to find another “more equitable” solution.

But that idea did not have enough support to move forward, and Shipley said she is proposing the insurance program as a compromise that could give homeowners and the city more options.

“One of the reasons I am suggesting this as a halfway point is it would generate a revenue stream,” Shipley said. “And then perhaps in a few years we could reevaluate what that money looks like and if it’s something we can use in a different way or make a different choice about how we’re replacing sidewalks.”

Shipley got the idea for a sidewalk insurance program from the city of Englewood, Colo. Englewood allows property owners to opt into a program where they pay a small annual fee and the city uses that funding to make repairs to sidewalks and other concrete adjacent to their property when necessary. Englewood launched the program in 1997, and currently about 94% of all eligible property owners participate, according to the Englewood city website.

Englewood was the first city in the U.S. to create such a program, according to the Englewood Herald. The Herald reports that participating property owners pay an annual fee based on the amount of concrete around the property, with the average annual fee being about $40 for a home with a 50-foot frontage. When the program began in 1997, only about 700 of the almost 11,000 property owners in the city declined to join.

If the commission has interest in such a program, Shipley said the city would need to discuss the details, such as how the fee would be calculated, whether it would be annual or monthly and whether the program would be open to all property owners. Shipley said she hoped to discuss the feasibility of different options when the topic comes in front of the commission. She said she saw the insurance program as another option that might help alleviate the financial burden on homeowners.

“Even if they didn’t want sidewalks, they still have to pay for it; they don’t get a choice,” Shipley said. “And so I just feel like this would be something that would make that a little more palatable, by not surprising them with a huge cost all of a sudden.”

Shipley added that when she was knocking on doors during her campaign, she spoke with people who didn’t have a sidewalk but said they wanted a way to contribute to better sidewalks, usually because they were avid walkers or bikers. She said the insurance program could allow those people to pay into the program, knowing that their contribution would go toward sidewalk infrastructure.

Though Shipley did not get support for pausing the program, commissioners said they were open to discussing the sidewalk program again before the city starts enforcing the ordinance in the next zone.

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Ananda also said she wanted to discuss the larger question of the city eventually taking on responsibility for all sidewalks.

More specifically, Ananda wants to discuss the city taking over financial responsibility for sidewalk repairs section by section, as inspections and repairs are completed in each enforcement zone. She said she has asked city staff to provide data on how much that gradual takeover would cost the city and what the liability impacts would be.

“I just want that question to be answered,” Ananda said. “It might not be feasible, but I think it’s important to have real data to show — rather than speculation or assumption — about cost and liability.”

Ananda said no matter who is responsible for sidewalk maintenance, city taxpayers ultimately end up paying for the repairs, either directly or indirectly. She said if Shipley’s proposal can help property owners address the issue of sidewalk maintenance, she’s open to the idea.

City staff said at the commission’s meeting Feb. 4 that they would research both Shipley’s and Ananda’s proposals and bring the topics back to the commission for discussion within 60 days.

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