Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sidewalk Liability

Maybe I have a lot to learn about sidewalks, but it strikes me that maintaining sidewalks should be the government's responsibility. In response to citizen outrage, most of the Aldermen are holding public-meeting-type gatherings for the dual purposes of discussing the issue and eating cookies. One of this blog's operatives at one such meeting obtained the fiscal note that accompanied the bill, and I find it appropriate to reproduce the text:
The fiscal impact this legislation produces is an estimated
$510,000 for FY 2008 and has already been provided in the Adopted Budget.
The fees have been set at $25 residential and $150 non-residential annually along with a $10 inspection fee under section 14.04.080/090.

The city has roughly 125 miles of sidewalk or 2.64 million sq. feet.
It is estimated that 25% is brick or 660,000 sq. feet and the balance of 1.98
million sq. feet is concrete. Repair and replacement cost is $12 per sq.
foot for brick and $5 per sq. foot for concrete. Under this legislation
the city is taking responsibility for sidewalks with an estimated replacement
value of $17,820,000.

This is certainly an interesting issue. Here are the main components of citizen response to this issue as I see it:

-some citizens are angry because they have to pay for sidewalks when there aren't any in front of their house

-some citizens are wary that the city is taking on an additional $18 million in construction liability

-some citizens are concerned that the cash we be used for purposes other than fixing sidewalks

-some citizens believe that sidewalks are a priority at any expense

Here is my view. Sidewalks are important, and they should be taken care of by the government. Take downtown--nobody would argue that people need the sidewalks to patronize the stores. It does not make sense to have the stores themselves maintain their own sidewalks, because some might be red brick, some white brick, some cement, some dirt--who knows. It would be ridiculous. Sidewalks promote non-motorized-vehicle transportation and make such pedestrian travel safer.

Even so, the manner in which this issue was handled probably still deserves criticism. As is so often the case, the city seems to operate in a bubble that considers only the face of the issue at hand and fails to consider neither the long-term consequences nor the ambient economic situation. We all know that 2 budgets are tight right now: the city's, and also everyone's. Heck, I had to cancel the monthly replacement of my solid gold toilet seats just so I could afford my monthly massages! Usually, the financial well-beings of the city and its taxpayers have an inverse relationship. Incredibly, this bill actually places an economic strain on both the taxpayer AND the city at the same time.

The issue is the liability. Before, citizens had to replace their own sidewalks but were not taxed extra for this. A sidewalk repair can cost thousands of dollars, yet the city is willing to assume that responsibility for the mere charge of $25 per person. So, people are pissed to pay an extra $25 (even though they may be saving thousands), and taxpayers are pissed to have to pay the thousands. Distinction: under the old situation, the city could determine how strict it was going to be when making citizens fix broken sidewalks, whereas now the city must fix sidewalks if the citizens place an order.

Ultimately, I think that the city should take responsibility for the sidewalks. They should not pay for it through a special tax--they should pay for it out of the general fund. If there isn't enough money in the general fund, they should cut other nonsense things like the Department of Economic Affairs or the Sister City Program. Should this happen now? Probably not: it is a major policy shift, it probably should go through a bit more scrutiny, and the timing is crummy. I'm not saying there shouldn't be outrage, but I wonder if it's not misplaced.

1 comment:

Anne Arundel Crime said...

Where has it been said that the city is assuming for liability for injuries sustained as a result of a ill-repaired sidewalk?

I would bet that the cost is transferred to the city, but not the liability!