Column: Q&A with Sue McCormick: Responsibility for fixing sidewalks might shift to city
According to the City of Ann Arbor Transportation Planning, there are approximately 100 miles of sidewalks and shared-use paths throughout the city. Some 56 percent of the primary roads have sidewalks on both sides of the road. While the total number of sidewalks has not increased, sidewalks that are not in good condition are being replaced across the city.
Six years ago the city launched an aggressive campaign to get property owners to repair damaged sidewalks. City Code stipulates that it’s the responsibility of the property owner to maintain and repair the public sidewalks and walkways. This seemed to be a big surprise to many residents, perhaps because it previously had been enforced only if there was a complaint. In the summer of 2005, the Public Services Area initiated a citywide inspection program to identify and cite hazardous sidewalks, and force property owners to arrange and pay for the work.
That may be changing. During her budget presentation to Ann Arbor City Council, Public Service Administrator Sue McCormick recommended that the city now assume responsibility for any future repairs. She answered some of my questions about the program, in an email interview.
Lucy Ann: How was it decided to pull the Sidewalk Repair program back into the responsibility of the city?
Sue McCormick: Just a bit of clarification first. The administrative ‘program’ has been the city’s responsibility, while the responsibility for maintaining and replacing sidewalk slabs has been the responsibility of the individual property owners. What that means is that the city incurred expenses for mailings, public meetings, inspection and markings, inspection of forms, etc. to support the property owner’s efforts. What we are proposing is that much like the city resurfaces streets with the community’s support of the surfacing millage, the city could also assume the responsibility for replacing sidewalks. Staff is making the suggestion because we heard from many residents who would rather have the city do this for them, understanding that might be at some cost or assessment. We also had council members who similarly shared suggestions from their constituents and asked whether we could roll this into an existing millage. Lucy Ann: Any idea how many or what percentage of homeowners complied with getting their walks repaired? Sue McCormick: Outside of the student areas where there is a high percentage of rentals, the vast majority of property owners complied, though a few voluntarily deferred to the city, albeit at a higher cost that they may have incurred if they had arranged their own repair or replacement.
Lucy Ann: How did it become the direct responsibility of residents to take care of the repairs?
Sue McCormick: The ordinance requirements have been in place for many years. Like many of the ordinance requirements, the city was enforcing the standards (condition requirements) on a complaint driven basis, sort of like sidewalk snow and ice clearance. Early in this decade the deteriorating condition of the sidewalks was becoming more obvious and the city was seeing injury incidents increase as a result. The city began what was intended to be a 5-year program in 2005. The final effort for this program cycle will be completed this summer.
Lucy Ann: Where is the funding coming from to have the city take care of the repairs under this new proposal?
Sue McCormick: The approach staff has proposed to council is to include this as an eligible activity the city can perform at the time the street resurfacing millage is considered for renewal this November. Much community discussion will occur before then to determine how the millage language should be revised and whether the millage amount should be reconsidered as a result.
Lucy Ann: Does the city code have to be changed if the city is now going to be responsible rather than the homeowner or business?
Sue McCormick: Yes. Very preliminarily, the code is clear about the property owner’s responsibility. We would need at least a provision that allows the city to perform this work with voter authorization. We have not worked out the details of this with the City Attorney’s Office, so I have little more to offer. Lucy Ann: Do you know if City Council supports this idea? If so, when would it go into effect?
Sue McCormick: The net result of our budget proposal is that beyond the repairs I mentioned that we will complete this summer, there is no funding proposed to support a future program. I cannot presume council’s support. They could choose to accept the budget as is - which is with no program provision, wait to see what will come from the community dialogue this summer around the renewal of the street resurfacing millage and then determine how to proceed, or modify the budget to maintain administrative support and continue as we have. Their options are open.
On my radio show recently, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said, “We are going to seriously look at the city taking this on, and that would allow us to maintain Ann Arbor’s sidewalks in a more timely manner. If you keep up with the maintenance, you don’t come up with this big burden (for property owners) that we saw a few years ago.” Will council support this? “Don’t know. We’ll take a really close look at it.”
If this is tied to a street millage, whether it’s a renewal or increase, it’ll be interesting to see if Ann Arbor voters support it. The lingering sound of the jackhammer burrowing into blocks of concrete, and the painful memory of having to directly pay for it, may be all that’s needed for approval. It should be noted that if property owners haven't fixed walks that the city marked, they are still responsible to get the work done.
One positive outcome from all of this was that many of us met neighbors whom we didn’t know until they organized to get group pricing on sidewalk repairs. That gave new meaning to “block” party.