Editorial: City has more to prove, more to answer before taking on obligation of sidewalk maintenance

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

A majority of city commissioners are correct to walk slowly down this sidewalk.

Three of five Lawrence city commissioners — Mayor Brad Finkeldei and Commissioners Stuart Boley and Lisa Larsen — all expressed reservations about an idea for the City of Lawrence to take over the financial responsibility of maintaining sidewalks in the city.

As has been the state law for decades, property owners are responsible for the maintenance of public sidewalks that run through their private property. Over the past several years, city commissioners have flirted with the idea of taking over that responsibility, adding millions of dollars in new liabilities to the city’s obligations. Each time, city commissioners ultimately have said no to the idea.

They should say no once again, for a multitude of reasons. Here are a few:

• The city, by its own admission, hasn’t proved that it is very good at maintaining infrastructure. Before the pandemic, the major talking point out of City Hall was that the city was facing an infrastructure crisis. Certain city leaders were clearly trying to build momentum for a new funding push to address years of neglected street, water, sewer and other infrastructure maintenance.

Some city leaders even were suggesting that the community in the past had kicked the can down the road on infrastructure and that now it was serious about the issue. That was a tough pill to swallow for residents who have been in town for awhile, given that city taxpayers have approved not once, but twice, a citywide sales tax that is entirely devoted to infrastructure maintenance.

The community hasn’t kicked the can down the road at all. Rather, if infrastructure truly is in the bad shape that the city claims — and it may well be — it is because the city underestimated the amount of money it needed to address the job, didn’t use the money it had in the right way or some combination of the two.

City leaders ought to show better progress on the infrastructure task they’ve already committed to before adding new obligations. There seems to be reason to believe that city residents could get hit with some new tax to fund sidewalk maintenance, yet still not get the quality sidewalks they would expect.

• The city’s current estimate is that it will take $3.7 million a year to adequately maintain sidewalks. First, that is an estimate that seems ripe to be wrong. It is based upon an assumption that private citizens will first spend a certain amount of money to bring sidewalks up to a certain condition level, which is far from a certainty.

But even if the estimate is correct, city leaders should ask a basic question: Is this really the best use for $3.7 million worth of new public spending? Maybe commissioners would come to the conclusion that it is, but they ought to have a deeper discussion before they determine that. Look at the city’s capital improvement plan, look at the state of affordable housing, look at the state of job creation in the community, and then ponder whether there would be more productive ways to spend $37 million over the next decade.

Commissioners also ought to know that for some, this issue is about more than what is visible on the surface. Some people want to see more spending on city sidewalks because they think it will reduce city spending on streets. There is a belief among some that cars are one of the greatest problems in America. (Thursday’s New York Times column by Farhad Manjoo spells out the argument.)

By all means, Lawrence can have that debate, but do it in a straightforward manner. And while it creates a certain amount of heartburn when uttered, it still should be said that sidewalks and streets are both important, but not equally so. More people use streets than sidewalks. More commerce is facilitated on streets than sidewalks. More emergency services are delivered on streets than sidewalks. The list could go on.

• City commissioners should recognize they already have done much good on the issue of sidewalks. They have created a system that inspects the quality of sidewalks and sends notices to property owners about the need for repairs. They have created a grant program for people who may be unable to pay for repairs, and they are using the city’s economies of scale to lower the cost of sidewalk repairs for everyone. The program is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, but it is an example of good government. It ought to be given adequate time to produce good results.

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