Answer Man: Who should pay for sidewalk upkeep?

August 2, 2018

Oh, Great Purveyor of All Knowledge,

When I arose from much-needed slumber, I noticed vandals had spray-painted our front sidewalk with arrows and other gang graffiti. Then I noticed that many neighbors had been violated in a similar way.

A longtime resident of this city informed us it had been marked by a city sidewalk enforcement person, who had designated the walks for replacement.

Then I realized someone has to pay for this. My questions are:

1. We notice other citizens walking on these walks far more than we do. Why shouldn’t all share the cost?

2. Why doesn’t the city levy a small amount for sidewalk upkeep? We did this in 56265, while I was on city council and it worked well. All property owners shared in the repair. Why wouldn’t this work in a progressive city as opposed to a rural hamlet?

3. Since the DMC has plenty of money to help the wealthy, why can’t they help with streets, sidewalks, and the like? Many residents are struggling to get by on a meager retirement income. Why not do something for the “average Joes and Janes” of the community? They have helped pay the tax bills in Rochester for years. Why must they be gouged in their golden years? — Al Johnsrud, Rochester

Al, are you calling the city’s Public Works Department crews a street gang? If so, it makes me worry about the department’s occasional conflicts with Parks Department policies and practices and whether it could escalate into an interdepartmental turf war.

Alas, you are correct. The arrows and other additions of bright paint to neighborhood sidewalks aren’t marking turf. Rather, they are signs that sidewalks are being eyed for repair, which means, if the strange symbols appear in front of your house, you may want to hold off on any extravagant spending.

The Public Works Department has proposed creating a sidewalk improvement district in the past, which would diffuse repair costs. Under the proposal, the city would have charged property owners for sidewalk improvements based on their property classification.

Such a program could help the city fund its $3.6 million in annual sidewalk improvement needs, of which it is currently funding about $350,000 annually in past years — $250,000 from property taxes and another $100,000 in assessments to property owners.

In 1974, the state adopted a statute that allowed for cities to put sidewalk improvement districts in place. The districts would charge city landowners based on the classification of their properties. Former Public Works Director Richard Freese envisioned four property types: tax-exempt and agricultural, residential, multifamily and commercial and industrial.

The current council, however, was split on the option two years ago.

While some city residents have complained assessments come with largely unexpected one-time costs, others — likely those not yet paying assessments or those who have already paid their share — say they’d prefer all city taxes and fees be assessed through property taxes.

The divide means there hasn’t been enough political will to stem the practice of seemingly random, one-time assessments.

Just last week, City Administrator Steve Rymer pondered whether the political winds could be shifting.

Recent changes to federal tax code mean fewer folks are able to write off local property taxes, so they might see a benefit in spreading the costs of city services to more revenue sources, which could target users, rather than property owners. The discussion started last week, and council members indicated a willingness to look at options.

Only time will tell if Rymer and the city’s new Public Works director, Christopher Petree, will be able to push forward efforts originally proposed by former City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold and Freese.

As for whether Destination Medical Center funds — by which I assume you mean the $411 million in state funds planned for public projects over 20 years — can ease the burden created by the marks in front of your home, it’s unlikely.

If my Answer Files are correct, you live in Southwest Rochester, outside the DMC district. The state legislation that created the DMC initiative dictates the associated state funding must be spent on public projects within the district.

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