Sidewalks here to stay, but who should pay?

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Marcia Nelesen
Friday, August 10, 2012

— For as far back as anyone can remember, abutting property owners have paid for installing, maintaining and repairing Janesville sidewalks.

But the city council Monday will consider whether to change the way the city does sidewalk business.

Any change would shift the cost of sidewalks from individual property owners to taxpayers.

A sidewalk committee commissioned by the council recommended changes because the majority of committee members believe most of the angst over sidewalks is rooted in cost.

"Former and current council members on the committee have indicated that, historically, the financing of sidewalks has been a major complaint," committee member Bob Yeomans wrote in a letter to council members. "Please solve it to remove it as a source of contention."

Others on the committee, though, have said they would support a change only if the inequity to those who already have paid to install sidewalks is addressed.

The committee recommends:

-- An 18-month notice be given to property owners who are ordered to put in sidewalks. That means the 2013 program would not move forward until 2014, City Manager Eric Levitt said in a memo. The city has a map on its website detailing its seven-year sidewalk plan, so residents can check anytime if and when they are scheduled for sidewalks.

-- The cost to pay staff who administer the sidewalk program be charged to the general taxpayer. Now, the cost is charged to private property owners who pay the city to install their sidewalks.

Those who choose private contractors do not pay the administrative cost, which is one reason why private contractors can build sidewalks cheaper than the city. The city also must pay prevailing wage. It also accepts residents whose sidewalks present problems, such as trees that need to be removed or retaining walls built. Those additional costs are folded into the city's total cost and spread among property owners on the city's sidewalk program.

In his letter to the council, Yeomans questioned the fairness of requiring only one set of residents to pay the city's engineering costs. Yeomans calls the surcharge a regressive tax because people who hire the city to install sidewalks usually do so because they do not have cash on hand and must use the city's financing plans.

Shifting the cost of staff time dedicated to sidewalks to the general fund would mean all residents would pay that cost with their property taxes.

-- City-ordered repairs of existing sidewalks be paid with general taxes, again shifting the cost from abutting homeowners to all homeowners.

-- The city pay for all sidewalksónew and those needing repairówith general property taxes if past inequities can be resolved.

One suggestion, for instance, is to tax or assess those people who do not have sidewalks to share in the cost of the sidewalks people are ordered to put in. Levitt has not yet determined the legality of such an option.

The sidewalk committee was formed after some residents protested the 2012 sidewalk program. The council that approved the seven-year program in 2008 did so to improve safety and fill sidewalk gaps. It began implementing the program in 2011. A 2006 ordinance requires all residents in new subdivisions to build sidewalks.

The current council, however, is not as supportive of sidewalks overall.

The sidewalk committee recommended that some of the 2012 program be built, and the council approved. The committee did not meet the council's deadlines, however, and the council closed the 2012 program half-completed.

Yeomans questioned whether the city makes money on its sidewalk program. He said in his letter that the city borrowed more than it spent in two of the last three years and that it charges residents more interest than the actual cost of the borrowing.

Yeomans also asked what happens to money set aside by developers to build future sidewalks, so-called "funded sidewalks." He questioned whether cost projections have been accurate over the years.

"As you begin reviewing the budget for next year, I ask you to question your comfort level with these dynamics," Yeomans said.

Last updated: 5:11 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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