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Lawrence City Commission to consider policy that would bill property owners for sidewalk repairs

Lawrence resident Ryan Fitzpatrick makes his way south along the 900 block of Rhode Island Street past a section of crumbling sidewalk on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

Lawrence property owners who don’t comply with city notices to repair their sidewalks could soon see the cost for those repairs added to their tax bills.

At their meeting Tuesday, city commissioners will discuss an administrative policy proposed by city staff that lays out how the city would systematically enforce its existing ordinance that requires property owners to repair hazardous sidewalks adjacent to their properties. If property owners fail to make the repairs within a certain timeframe, the city would make the repairs and could add the cost to residents’ property tax bill.

Local neighborhood representatives say the policy is inequitable because it unfairly burdens some residents for infrastructure that is used by everyone. Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods Chair Courtney Shipley pointed out that not all neighborhoods have sidewalks on both sides of the street, and some lack any sidewalks. She said forcing some homeowners into debt for infrastructure that is publicly used is not acceptable, and that other cities have found solutions.

“There is a solution, we just need to figure out what it is for us,” Shipley said. “The current policy does not reflect what Lawrence is. Lawrence is not forcing someone into debt.”

LAN is one of several local groups, including the Lawrence Pedestrian Coalition and LiveWell Lawrence, that say sidewalks are public infrastructure and are asking the city to fund sidewalk repairs equitably instead of charging those who happen to have a sidewalk adjacent to their property. But city leaders say there isn’t money in the city’s budget to take on what is estimated to be $6.6 million in sidewalk repairs. The policy does leave the door open for the commission to provide financial assistance to homeowners with low income or more than one adjacent sidewalk, but does not require it. If the city does move forward with the policy, the local groups are asking that costs are offset for all those who qualify.

Asking voters

After years of the city not fully enforcing its ordinance requiring adjacent property owners to pay for repairs, the disrepair of Lawrence sidewalks has grown widespread, especially in older neighborhoods. The city has operated on a complaint-based system and didn’t take action beyond sending warning letters.

Local groups have researched how other cities handle sidewalk maintenance and proposed various funding options, including using property tax, establishing a fee charged to all residents on their utility bills, or at least setting aside enough funding to provide a 50-50 cost share program to all residents. LAN includes representatives from about a dozen neighborhoods, and Shipley said she hasn’t spoken to any property owner who finds the city’s approach acceptable. She said it shouldn’t be local organizations’ job to come up with a way to fund the repairs, and that instead the commission should give equitable funding options their due consideration.

“They need to have that discussion,” Shipley said. “There needs to be leadership from the commission to have that discussion.”

The city is still responsible for fixing sidewalks adjacent to its property and the estimated $3.3 million cost of installing additional sidewalk ramps to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mayor Stuart Boley said the city does not have the money to cover the backlog of repairs throughout the city with existing resources and that he is also leery of taking on the liability. Boley said he understands the argument that sidewalks are public infrastructure, but he is not interested in proposing another tax increase to fund sidewalk repairs citywide. He said if the city decides to take on the responsibility, it should be a voter-petitioned referendum.

“If the city were to take on the obligation, it really should be the voters that make that decision, because you are expanding the role of government,” Boley said.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen agreed that new funding would have to be identified for the city to take on sidewalk maintenance. If that is the case, Larsen said residents should be able to vote on the matter.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert also said that for the city to take on the repairs is not financially feasible. When asked if the city could do so in a phased approach, handling the sidewalks similar to how it handles streets and other infrastructure, Herbert said he doesn’t think the city would ever be able to catch up to the repairs or succeed in bringing all sidewalks into good condition.

“The sidewalks are going to continue to degrade and infrastructure is going to continue to be poor,” Herbert said.

Enforcement

The ordinance requiring that residents maintain sidewalks next to their property has been on the books for decades, and it states that the city can make the repairs for those who don’t comply with repair notices.

The administrative policy states the city would annually bid out sidewalk repairs and would allow property owners to make use of the contractor and price established by the bid. For those who don’t make repairs when requested, the policy lays out how the city would systematically enforce the existing ordinance. For property owners who don’t comply with repair notices within 60 days, city staff will prepare a resolution for the City Commission to condemn the sidewalks. The city will then make the necessary repairs and bill the property owner.

The cost will include repairs, a 10 percent administrative fee, interest equal to the rate the city pays on the bonds, and “any other cost the city may have directly incurred as a result of making the repair,” according to the policy. If the property owner doesn’t pay the bill outright within 30 days, it will be added to property tax bills and can be paid in four annual installments.

Although LAN, the Pedestrian Coalition and LiveWell have all indicated their first choice is for the city to take on repairs through an equitably funded system, the groups have also said that if the city is going to move forward with enforcement, there should be substantial assistance available, especially for low-income homeowners.

The possibility of financial assistance

Though the policy is very detailed in how it would enforce the ordinance, it is less so regarding what financial assistance would look like in practice.

The policy leaves open the possibility of financial assistance for residents who own and occupy their home and are low-income or have more than one adjacent sidewalk, but the policy does not guarantee such a program. Specifically, the policy states that the City Commission “may” fund such assistance “if funding is available.” It also notes that assistance would be first come, first served.

The policy states that the city will use annually set guidelines from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine who qualifies as low-income. Specifically, Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, told the Journal-World that those homeowners who have more than one sidewalk or who make below 80 percent of area median family income would be able to apply to the program. For last year, that is $39,800 for one person, $45,450 for two people and $51,150 for three people.

If the policy is adopted, LAN, LiveWell and the Pedestrian Coalition all hold the position that, in the very least, all costs should be offset for those homeowners who qualify under the HUD guidelines.

Shipley said LAN would like to see the city take on a 50-50 cost share and cover all costs for low-income homeowners under HUD. LiveWell’s statement says that at a minimum, it supports changes to the policy that ensure costs are entirely offset for all HUD-qualified homeowners, that affordable costs to property owners are guaranteed through a city bid process and that the city does not draw from money already identified for bikeways and pedestrian improvements. Like LiveWell, the Lawrence Pedestrian Coalition states it does not want the funding for sidewalk repairs to draw from the funds set aside for new pedestrian infrastructure.

PedCo Facilitator Gary Webber said if the City Commission provides aid to those with more than one sidewalk and all low-income residents, then the coalition would be satisfied, though Webber was clear that was not the coalition’s first choice.

“PedCo position has always been that we need to repair the sidewalks and do it in an equitable manner,” Webber said. “… But if you repair the sidewalks and protect the lowest-income folks, we feel that that basically meets the criteria.”

Herbert shares some of the groups’ concerns about the financial assistance aspect of the policy. He likened it to the city’s utility assistance program, which after Herbert asked city staff was found to be only serving 86 people, or a fraction of 1 percent of all utility customers.

“I think saying that we have assistance available, but not actually declaring how that will look and how that will play out should leave people with a degree of skepticism,” Herbert said.

He said he thinks the policy is a good compromise, but the provision regarding financial assistance needs to be clearly defined, adding that “if the amount is $5,000, that’s not going to get us anywhere.”

When asked about the financial assistance provision, Larsen also said she thinks it needs to be discussed further. Larsen said she is not sure where the safety net should start and end, but that it would be hard to guarantee funding every year to cover all those who qualify.

“To guarantee it every single year, that would be stretching it for me,” Larsen said. But, Larsen said some type of mechanism for those with low income should be clearly established.

Boley, Larsen or Herbert did not outright say that they would support the new policy, but all agreed that something different needs to be done. Going into Tuesday’s discussion, Boley said he is going to keep an open mind, and he expects to hear from the public, city staff and commission and bring those views together to craft a policy that will work for Lawrence.

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Comments

Bill Pasquel

Break out the popcorn...Here we go...

This is so ridiculous. A property owner has no recourse under the current "Law" or ordinance in Lawrence. KS - Mayberry.

Let's see....When was the concrete was poured? Who poured and finished it? Where did the batch come from and at what temperature was it poured? Was it a hot load to dry fast or with more water to cure? Who formed up the sidewalks and was mesh or re-bar used? Was any warrant given to the City (or prospective home owner) when this slop was poured? Am sure there will be no certain answers to these questions.

Geez.. Not only is the home owner responsible for the clearing of snow/ice on a sidewalk that they never wanted but they are also responsible for repairs for which they have no idea of the history of such concrete path which the CITY OWNS but the homeowner is responsible for?? B.S...

THE SIDEWALKS ARE CITY PROPERTY. THEREFORE THE CITY OF LAWRENCE, KS. HAS THE OBLIGATION TO MAINTAIN OR STOP MAKING SUCH SIDEWALKS. Did you get that, City Commission? - Hick Town Troubles...

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bill Pasquel

-warranty -

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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RJ Johnson

Wrong, the state of Kansas says the sidewalks belong to the property owner and the property owner is reasonable for the upkeep! The City of Lawrence only enforces the law as it should be. Let's see, it's only been like this the last 60 years!! It's your property, take care of it!!

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Aaron McGrogor

Well there's no need for anything to ever change, right?

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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William D'Armond

I would take care of it by ripping it out. Stay off my property and while your are at it, get your utilities off my property as well and put them under your roadways.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Brock Masters

An the state is infallible? The state says bend over and take it and you do because, well it’s the state.

It is not my property If it were my property I could stop people from using it and wouldn’t have to shovel it when it snowed. I could decide to remove it and replace it with grass. I can’t do any of these things so it is not my property

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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RJ Johnson

You can also wait till someone trips and falls injuring themselves and then sue you for not taking care of your property. Take my advice, it'd be cheaper for you to repair your sidewalk instead of waiting to get sued or the City to do it for you and send you the bill!

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bill Pasquel

BTW- The picture fore fronting this article is not only laughable, but hypocritical, at best. Junk 1/2 inch, at best, torn up sidewalk with a BRICK laden street in the background??

Does that mean, if a home owner is truly responsible for the city's sidewalk repair, said home owner can use brick, or even asphalt, to repair "their" so said sidewalk??

Think about it.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bob Smith

The city needs more money so they can hire some consultants.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Paul Jones

At the very least the absentee property owners, especially the ones that can afford to hire "property management" companies should be made to comply immediately. This is a no brainer, just like hiring traffic control police and funding them with the ticket money they would make if we actually started enforcing the laws including ticketing and towing all the cars that routinely park over sidewalks in this town.

There are so many simple solutions to make Lawrence walkable that aren't addressed and fancy paths on the outskirts of town that go nowhere are funded instead.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Michael Kort

Ahmen .

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Paul Jones

The city also needs to consider the types of trees they use along the roads which are causing most of the damage to the sidewalks which makes it a joint issue for the property owner and the city.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Kay Springer

I think the city code states that the homeowner is also responsible for maintaining the city trees in front of their property and have to ask for permission before they can have any trimming done. Don't even think about removing a city tree without permission or it could cost you big. City planted a sycamore in front of my house. Ug, nobody needs a sycamore tree in their front yard.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Joe Masterson

One of our neighbors tried to put up a swing on their tree in front of their property. The city told them to take it down within days. Another neighbor had a tree that was dead and they were worried that a storm could knock the branches off and cause damage. They called the city multiple times and sure enough, when the next big storm hit, branches fell in the street and blocked the road and hit vehicles, including ours. When we called the city about it, they said it must have fell though the cracks and they finally came out and cut it down, but we were stuck with the repair bill.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Louis Kannen

"But city leaders say there isn’t money in the city’s budget to take on what is estimated to be $6.6 million in sidewalk repairs."
So your city does not 'have the money' ( atrocious 'proactive planning' ) and their 'solution' is to pawn it off on the tax paying home-owners??
At risk of appearing the 'outsider looking in', what's next for you folks...adjacent street repairs billed to the 'frontage' properties...???

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Richard Quinlan

Makes sense to get it done and just apply cost to tax over a few year period otherwise it will never get done. If owner wants to opt out and contract on their own so be it but with a time frame for compliance. The combination of strapped owners , landlords who wont put a penny into their properties , and those who just choose not to make this an issue that must be addressed. I dont buy any of the arguments of the" i dont wanna pay for it crowd " . You shouldnt have bought the property if you felt that way. In many of these instances folks arent maintaining the rest of their property either.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Aaron McGrogor

It's not just an "I don't want to pay for it" crowd. There's also the "I didn't have any say in the implementation of this" crowd and the "this sidewalk belongs to the city in every facet except cleaning and repairing. How is that right?" crowd.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Armen Kurdian

Sidewalks are common use, a property owner being told to maintain sidewalk on their property is being forced to subsidize a public service. I got it, the law states it's the homeowner's responsibility (only getting that from the article, if it's wrong, please correct me), but that can't possibly be constitutional.

Also, if the mayor says the city would never be able to keep up, how in the world could the property owners keep up? If it's a capacity issue, then it doesn't matter who's paying. You'd have to bring outside pavers to come in to the city either way.

What happens if someone goes and 'hurts' themselves on someone else's sidewalk...they gonna sue the homeowner for failure to upkeep public property...or private property that they are trespassing on?

Also, you gonna fix sidewalks piecemeal so that some parts of your block are fixed, others in disrepair? Come on, that's impractical.

The city will need to pony up something. Some amount of subsidy for all homeowners...maybe a little more for lowest income folks. But the city has to take ownership.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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William D'Armond

It'a not a capacity issue, it a piss poor planning issue. If the city were maintaining sidewalks all along they wouldn't need $6.6 million to repair the entire city. Here is another idea, how about adding costs for repairs in their impact fees for development, then there would not be a funding issue. Instead, we are going to push it back on the home owners. Next their are going to say curbing is a homeowners issue. Right of Way and easements required for utilities infringe on the property, which usually says that the front 10' is owned by the city, essentially imminent domain, and that it is maintained by the homeowner. That is meant for every day upkeep (mowing, weedeating), not to repair a shoddy sidewalk that the city and their inspectors approved and allowed to be installed.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Mark Jakubauskas

Fundamental problem being, the City has kicked this can down the road for decades now, insisting that the homeowners be responsible for forking over thousands to repair/replace the sidewalks on their property. And that policy has failed, magnificently.

Let's accept some truths. Sidewalks last a long time. Longer than roads, I'd bet. So they don't have to be replaced as often. Folks really don't have the funds to replace their sidewalks for the most part - and even if they do, sinking those thousands into concrete isn't a high priority. High cost, low return on the investment. Basic economics. Does the city want a bunch of homeowners mixing SakCrete and coming up with their own versions of "quality" paving ?

Look, let's be smarter about a solution. How about this: Divide the city up into 10-20 districts. Within each district, treat it as a special tax assessment district (we've done this before, right, for developers ?), and for each district, assess a small tax or fee onto the utility bill for sidewalk replacement. Prioritize districts and areas within districts that have large/long stretches of bad sidewalk - it's going to be cheaper for the city to contract to replace a full block-length of sidewalk at once than piecemeal it out here and there and create a patchwork of good/poor sidewalks.

The problem isn't one of concrete, or homeowners who don't maintain their sidewalks, or of the city being too broke to repair/replace them. None of those are true. The problem is that poor city management in the past has exacerbated the problem via neglect; the past/ongoing solution isn't working, isn't equitable, and isn't feasible, and flat-out doesn't make sense; and what we're lacking here is is not funds or enforcement - we're lacking creative solutions.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Ken Schmidt

I have no issue with the city asking home owners to repair sidewalks. If they choose to enforce making us, as homeowners, responsible for upkeep--> THEY need to take responsibility for upkeep of GUTTERS! Trashed gutters are part of the front facad of the home and DO affect home appeal and market pricing. I have fought for years to have deteriorating gutters replaced with little results and continuous property elevations not on-par with market values. If one, then the other. Don't hold folks to standards you do not keep. Stop giving kickbacks.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Clara Westphal

I paid for my sidewalk repairs. I did not want anyone hurt.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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David Reynolds

If the homeowner is responsible for the maintenance, then there is a question of equity.

How does the city propose to address the cost issue for neighborhoods where the sidewalk is only on line side of the street?

All the neighbors use the side\walk, but I have to pay for repairs?

Currently I also do all the shoveling of snow & ice removal. I also remove the snow & ice the city dumps on the access to the sidewalks when they plow the streets.

So, I also ask the city the following question: "It was the city's decision to only place sidewalks on one side of the street. Will the city come up with an equitable cost distribution system for sidewalk repairs?

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Melinda Henderson

Please show up at City Commission tomorrow night and point this out.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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David Reynolds

I would love to be there Melinda, but I have to be at a recital by my granddaughter in Kansas City.

I would hope the city commissioners & staff would be considering "all" the issues, including the one I listed above. Most certainly I would also hope they consider equity for the many issues raised by this particular maintenance problem.

I wrote them last year when this issue was first raised. Included in that communication was the current city manager.

I hope they don't have short memories.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Dorothy Hoyt-Reed

Find out if one of your friends and/or neighbors is going and ask them to read a statement for you.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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San Cawthorn

If the homeowner is responsible for repairing side walks and its viewed as their property how can the city fine an individual for not clearing snow and parking in their driveway which has a sidewalk running through it ?

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Brock Masters

Simple they say out of one side of their mouth one thing and another thing out of the other side.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Tony Peterson

I think the City needs to first decide on the parameters for sidewalk standards and a definition of what's acceptable. Some are pretty obvious like not having slabs of concrete heaving up four inches or ones completely broken. Brick sidewalks are a different matter.

Mine is clear and navigable but I wouldn't want to roller skate on it.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Jeremiah Jefferson

Seems to me that if the homeowner is financially responsible, and they are the owner of said side walk, they ought to be able to just opt out all together and remove the whole side walk, plant it back to grass and just not have a side walk.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bonnie Uffman

Everybody, please show up at the city commission meeting Tuesday evening. Let's all do what we can to be sure that our voices are heard.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Kay Springer

adding it to property tax will really suck. There is no getting around not paying your property tax bill. I foresee a lot more properties on the tax lien sales if this goes forward. The rich will get richer and the poor will be left without homes. So depressing. I feel so bad for the elderly and unemployed who are struggling to maintain their Douglas county property already.

There are so many residents that are living month to month and the cost of a new sidewalk will literally ruin their small budgets. There has to be a better solution. Is a HUD program available to maybe let homeowner's take out long term loans to spread the cost over say 24 months.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bob Summers

Homeowners should be required to fill pot holes in the street in front of their dojos as well.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Richard Heckler

How about if owners do not want to clear sidewalks of snow/ice they sign up with the city. Then the city can bill accordingly?

If owners are physically unable to clear walks what then?

The quality of sidewalk construction should be coded/mandated by city government using the best concrete/rebar technique so that sidewalks will last 100 years or more. Builders won't be happy BUT homeowners likely would be pleased in the long term. I stand by Bill Pasquel on this issue.

Build very tough concrete sidewalks only.... no discretion allowed.

Either do both sides of new neighborhoods or none.

The real problem as I see it is no code enforcement has been activated for at least 40 years.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Kay Springer

how much does it cost to have say, 60' if sidewalk removed and replaced by a professional service?

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Kevin Anderson

Personally, I do not use the 100 foot sidewalk in front of my house. I live on a corner lot. My driveway to my garage is on the other side of the corner. Why should I have to pay to replace or fit it? Thankfully, it does not currently require any work. If I am expected to pay for repairs, then I should also have the choice to replace the sidewalk with grass, and make it part of my yard. I already have to shovel the sidewalk so that children can catch the school bus (I don't have children). If they pass this ordinance, I guess it is time to sell my house, and buy a lot without a sidewalk. Maybe in Eudora or Desoto.

A little over 10 years ago the city increased the taxes in our neighborhood, the utilities increased the costs in our neighborhood to prepare for expansion. The expansion never happened, and the price was never adjusted back. The city of Lawrence does a horrible job of planning, and taking care of their residents.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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