Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Future of Sidewalks

Alright, as promised here is the latest and greatest info regarding the notorious 2008 sidewalk tax. I originally made this post at 3:30 this morning, and by the time I opened my computer again at 8:30, I had 2 emails saying I got it wrong! I left the city council meeting early and failed to verify what went down. Purely amateur blogging. I have since corrected my errors, and here we are.

As you know, the city council last October enacted a $25 tax on each resident in the city in exchange for the city doing general maintenance on sidewalks, taking the burden away from property owners. The tax was set to raise $500,000, but generate over $17 million in liability! Even if the city council didn't know those exact numbers, they certainly knew that they were drawing the short stick in that deal. So why do it? Well, my guess is to set a precedent. There is a ton of property in this city that is property-tax exempt for one reason or another, and this sidewalk tax would have avoided that by taxing everyone. If you set a precedent by taxing everyone $25, it's a lot easier in the future when you want to hit everyone up for $1000.

The public and the media largely ignored this issue until residents began receiving their bills for $25 a couple of months ago. People without sidewalks realized that they were being charged for sidewalks. Others were concerned with the city taking on so much liability. The city council began to hold hearings on the matter, and the tide began to turn towards repealing the tax. As if that weren't enough, the tax was unconstitutional, and word came from the Attorney General's office that the tax wouldn't pass muster.

Alarmingly, the issue didn't die there. In a recent work session, Mayor Moyer asserted that the unconstitutionality of the tax was only established in an advisory opinion--rather than case law--implying that she was willing to run with the tax until the city actually got sued and the tax could be invalidated in a more formal manner!

This brings us to Monday's city council meeting. The council considered O-21-08, which would have repealed the tax. But, that's not all it did. The bill went on to define the process by which sidewalks are to be repaired from now on:

-private property owners are responsible for sidewalk maintenance and upkeep.

-the director of public works, at his subjective whim, can determine that a sidewalk is "necessary for public convenience and safety", and compel a person to fix or install a sidewalk.

-after being notified, a person has 20 days to obtain a building permit and make the repairs. Or, they can file an appeal which must be done no later than 30 days after notification.

-design specifications for the sidewalk must be approved by the director of public works in accordance with standards that he designs.

-a 'Sidewalk Assistance Revolving Fund' is to be established, funded with 5% of the city's allocation of the State Highway User Fee.

That bill was better than the $25 tax, but not by much, and it failed. What did pass was R-34-08, a bill which suspends collection of the $25 tax but leaves the original O-12-07 intact. More importantly, it enumerates a laundry list of nearly 20 things that the city must due in regard to sidewalks--things that should have been considered before O-12 was enacted in the first place.

The result is as follows. Property owners are still responsible for first-time installation of sidewalks, but the city is on the hook for repairs. This is halfway to the solution that makes sense to me, which is to have the city be responsible for it all and pay for it out of normal funds. Speaking of funding, R-34 is not good. While it repeals the fee, it leaves the provision requiring a Sidewalk Fund. So, there is a mandatory fund without a source of funding, and mandatory spending without a source of funding = structural deficit. This is easily resolved by removing the fund and creating a capital program for sidewalks, but the fact is R-34 does not do this.

So in summary:
1. no more $25 tax
2. city taking more liability for sidewalk maintenance
3. no established funding source for said maintenance
4. further study needed

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Brian for the upfront admission of an error. If we had a little more of that these days, we could enjoy a more fruitful debate. I know that ANYTHING I've ever done at 3:30 in the morning lacked a certain degree of accuracy.

Perhaps Senator Obama decided that the surge was a failure at 3:30am.

Bob McWilliams

ellis said...

As a home owner in Annapolis, I'd love to see more brick sidewalks with the granite curbs. The concrete is incredibly unattractive. In fact, I'm willing to pay out of pocket to have it in front of my house.

Annapolis stopped the brick sidewalks right at the intersection of West Washington street Clay Street. (yes, there are law-abiding, republican tax payers on Clay St... heheh...) Just 40 ft up the road is my house. Like I said... I'm willing to pay to have the sidewalks converted. But it'll involve getting my neighbors (many of whom are just like me) involved as well.

Brian Gill said...

I think Ellis' comment displays an important point. You can't just build whatever sidewalk you want, because if it doesn't match with your neighbor's sidewalk, the streetscape will look ridiculous!

The city's priorities for finishing the nice brick sidewalks are pretty asinine as well. From what I remember, downtown sidewalks are the priority 1, 2, and 3 areas, and the rest of the city is priority 4! And if you live in a priority 4 area, my guess is you can forget about brick walks.

That said, I'm happy that the city is moving towards full responsibility for sidewalks. I hope they get there, and they figure out a way to pay for it.

Bush Is Wacked said...

McWilliams,

You mother told me you were conceived at 3:30 am.

Anonymous said...

I think people need to fully understand the financial realities associated with all of this.

As Alderman Paone pointed out, St. Mary's (at their own expense) wanted to replace the brick sidewalk from the school to the end of Duke of Gloucester. The estimate they got for the cost of doing that was $300,000.

So, just how much brick sidewalk repair do you think is going to get done around the city. That's why nearly ALL municipalities make sidewalks the responsibility of the homeowner.

Having the City assume this responsibility is financial suicide. You will quickly see sidewalk replacement become a tool of political favortism, since there isn't enough money available to make even a TINY dent in the repairs currently needed around the city.

Bob McWilliams

Brian Gill said...

I can't disagree with that, but I think with comprehensive reforms from a new mayor, we would be OK.

O-12-07 stll allows property owners to choose to fix their own sidewalks as long as they comply with the city's protocols. St. Mary's can spend $1 million on sidewalks if they want to.

The problems of favortism transcend sidewalks. Rather than trying to prevent this problem with each little sector of city business, I would prefer a method to take power away from the mayor so accountability is more widespread: city manager, etc.

Sir Loves Longtime said...

we got to privatize all sidewalks. We need to get a company to build and maintain all sidewalks and install little toll booths at equal intervals. Money is split between the private company and me.

Problem Solved

ellis said...

LOL!
Toll booths on the sidewalks?
Sadly... I can see the democrats doing that.

Funny story... my mother just came back from a weeks vacation to Niagra Falls. She and her boyfriend decided to walk across the bridge one day. They went to the US checkpoint and showed their ID's and were allowed to cross into Canada. Upon their return to the US... they were charge a 50 cents toll to enter. WTF? You can leave for free but ya gotta pay to return? heheh...