Lawrence City Commission wants more information about cost, legal issues involved with taking over sidewalk maintenance

photo by: City of Lawrence

A photo from the City of Lawrence website shows an example of a sidewalk in need of repair.

Before Lawrence city leaders consider taking over certain sidewalk maintenance responsibilities, they have a couple of questions for city staff, including how the city might fund a maintenance program and what kinds of legal issues it might face if it tried to enact one.

At its meeting Tuesday, the City Commission received a report about the potential costs of taking over sidewalk maintenance after property owners had repaired the sidewalks to a certain level. Commissioners then directed city staff to do further research on what the ramifications of such a program might be.

The city adopted a policy in 2018 to administer its longstanding sidewalk repair ordinance, which generally requires all property owners — businesses, landlords and homeowners — to pay to repair the sidewalks running along their properties. Under the 2018 policy, low-income homeowners and those with more than one sidewalk along their property can qualify for financial assistance from the city. The report the city heard Tuesday was about what it would cost the city to keep sidewalks maintained after property owners had made these initial repairs.

Two commissioners, Jennifer Ananda and Courtney Shipley, voiced support for such a program. But Mayor Brad Finkeldei and Commissioners Stuart Boley and Lisa Larsen said they needed to know more about the financial side of things.

Boley specifically voiced concerns about costs — according to a city staff memo to the commission, if Lawrence were to fully replace 4% of its sidewalks each year, it would cost about $3.7 million annually. Boley wanted to know where the city would get the money for a repair program and what other city expenses might be affected by it.

Finkeldei said he was also worried about what liabilities a repair program might open the city up to, such as having authority over sidewalks that are not yet compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s certainly something we could take on and something we would need to figure out how to pay for,” Finkeldei said. “If we’re going down this route, I prefer the situation in which we don’t necessarily take on the legal responsibility of maintenance, because I do think that does increase some liability.”

The city’s policy for enforcing the existing sidewalk repair ordinance has been unpopular with some homeowners, who say the city should take care of sidewalk maintenance in the same way it takes care of streets or other shared infrastructure.

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