Editorial: Both sides need to give a little in sidewalk debate

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It has been predictable — and somewhat understandable — that Lawrence City Hall has received a mass of complaints about its new sidewalk repair program. After all, no one likes an unexpected expense, and they certainly don’t like being told they must pay it.

But city leaders should continue on with the program, despite protests from several residents who spoke against it at last week’s City Commission meeting. The city should resist the notion that general tax dollars should be used to repair the sidewalks. The city should use its finite taxing capacity on matters of greater importance.

The city, though, should be open to modifying the program. It should give property owners a wider range of options for fixing sidewalks that have only slight deflections. The city is requiring sidewalks with deflections of as little as a half-inch to be repaired. That seems excessive. Grinding off a deflection in the sidewalk is allowed in some instances, which might produce a cheaper fix than complete replacement. The city ought to ensure other more affordable repair options also are allowed.

If the city winces at such ideas, it should remind itself not to get too high and mighty about sidewalk issues. This is the organization that for years sent out notices to property owners that their sidewalks were out of compliance with city code, but then simply allowed property owners to ignore those code violations with no ramifications. The community now has an estimated $9.4 million of sidewalk deficiencies. Given that the city helped create this mess, it ought to be understanding that improvements will come in steps smaller than it may prefer.

Whatever it does, however, the city should reject the idea that asking property owners to pay for sidewalk maintenance is unfair. That has become a popular notion. Part of it is understandable. A house on one side of the street has a sidewalk its property owner must pay for. A house on the other side of the street has no sidewalk and thus no expense.

Yes, it is unequal, but that doesn’t mean it is unfair. Government never will treat everybody exactly the same. A community is far too complex for that to ever be feasible. There’s a long list of examples of how government treats individuals differently. A few examples:

Couple A has no children. Couple B has six kids. They both pay the same amount in taxes for public education.

Homeowner A lives two minutes from a fire station. Homeowner B lives 20 minutes from a fire station. They both pay the same amount in taxes for fire protection.

Homeowner A has a backyard with a nice swimming pool and fence. Homeowner B has the same size backyard but can’t have any of those amenities. Homeowner B has a backyard full of utility easements that don’t allow for such structures to be built on top of them. Just like a sidewalk, the easement is a public use on private property. The city doesn’t maintain the ground or mow the grass on those easements, just as it doesn’t maintain sidewalks. It is up to homeowners to understand what they are getting into when they buy properties that have public elements to them.

There are, however, likely many homeowners who haven’t thought through those responsibilities. The city certainly has contributed to the lack of understanding by willfully turning a blind eye to sidewalk violations for so long.

Given that, the city needs to compromise more. It already has taken positive steps by offering low-cost financing for people who need to make repairs, in addition to offering a grant program for low-income property owners. But it should consider doing more. Perhaps offering a multiyear guarantee on any work done by a city contractor would be appropriate. A property owner shouldn’t fix a sidewalk and then have to worry about it cracking again a couple of years later.

But more than anything, both sides should keep the whole matter in perspective. It is just a sidewalk. The city should remember they don’t have to be in perfect condition. Property owners should remember what they signed up for, knowingly or not.

Editor’s note: This article was corrected to remove a statement that grinding was not a repair method accepted by the city.


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