With safety complaints up, city eyes sidewalk program

Chad Frey
More people at home, and walking in their neighborhoods, has led to more calls to city hall to report trip hazards on sidewalks.

Due to COVID-19, people are staying home more — and they are going for more walks. At least that is the working theory at city hall as Newton city staff deal with an influx of sidewalk safety complaints.

“We have had a plethora of sidewalk complaints come in that we did not have,” said Kelly McElroy, city manager. “They are home, they are out and walking in their neighborhood for the first time in (perhaps) many years. They are excising, and we love that piece of this.”

The numbers are shocking. This year there have been 98 complaints, factoring in the 11 from Wednesday. In 2019, there were 22. In 2017 and 2018 combined, there were 25.

“It has been more common this year for someone to call and give a route that they walked, while otherwise someone would call and say ’I tripped coming out of Mrs. Smith’s house,’ ” said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works. “It is more, ’Hey, I walked this whole route and there is bad sidewalk all around.’ We will go out and check all of that piece.”

Under state statute, it is the responsibility of the property owner to keep public sidewalks in good repair and free of trip hazards. The city generally enforces sidewalk violations when a complaint is submitted about a particular area.

When a complaint is rendered, city staff will look at the entire block in which the complaint is located.

“We try and address any violations that we see on the whole block,” McElroy said.

In 2005, the city began a cost-share program to help residents pay for necessary repair work.

Under the 2005 program, work was completed by a low-bid contractor determined by the City. The City paid the contractor in full and shared costs with the property owner — up to $2.50 per square foot of sidewalk replaced and a maximum of $500 per address or $1,000 for a corner lot. Property owners could either pay their share to the city in a lump sum or pay it off on their property tax statement over a five-year period.

“We bid those project out so we could have economies of scale,” Loomis said. “If you need only two panels done, that cost (per panel) is going to be higher than if you have several hundred feet of sidewalk that needs to be done.”

That process also assisted homeowners in locating a contractor — the city collected a number of projects under a single umbrella to bid out the project and select a contractor for sidewalk repairs.

Those cited for safety issues were not required to use the city program or contractor for their project, if they chose not to. If they fix it outside of the city program, they would pay for the repairs on their own.

“It’s not you are in violation, we fixed it and you owe,” said Mayor Richard Stinnett.

“This just gives a property owner an easier mechanism to take care of repairs,” said Chris Towle, city attorney.

The program was discontinued by the city commission in 2009 due of a lack of funding.

But some of those funds have been paid back, and they now sit in a reserve that can be used to reconstitute the program. That fund contains $145,000.

“I would like to see us cap this at the $145,000,” said Donna Pickman, director of finance for the city. “That is what we have, right now, set aside.”

If the program returns, it will likely keep the $500 cap per property.

Sidewalk complaints by year

2017 = 18

2018 = 7

2019 = 22

2020 (to date) = 98