LA to shift sidewalk burden

JULY 6, 2010


As the infrastructure crumbles throughout California, the sidewalks laid down during the first half of the last century have no immunity.

Initially responsible for the slab of concrete in front of their homes, Los Angeles residents saw this change in the 1970s as city government started picking up the tab for broken walkways. This is set to change as the Los Angeles City Council is expected to pass an ordinance in a few weeks reverting sidewalk upkeep back to the property owner.

In an era of cash-strapped government, Los Angeles cannot afford to keep maintaining 10,000 miles of sidewalk at a cost of about $10 million a year, said Councilman Bernard Parks. About 4,000 miles currently need repair.

“Everybody pays enough in taxes,” Parks said. “Most of that money goes to core responsibilities – public safety like police and fire, and things like libraries. It really gets down to whether fixing a sidewalk is a core responsibility.”

When news of the issue surfaced two months ago, the plan was met with a rousing protest from community leaders and talk show hosts who complained the city’s astronomical tax base should be enough to pay for repairs.

“We have the second highest utility user tax in the state here at 10 percent,” Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said of Los Angeles. “For that kind of money, one would think you would get something other than just the usual services.”

Los Angeles talk show host John Kobylt of AM radio’s KFI640 lamented in a broadcast that the tax money was going to “union whores” – the city employees, which are the highest paid in the nation. “And I didn’t ask for that tree to be planted there,” Kobylt said of a parkway tree in front of his Los Angeles house.

But these complaints apparently have fallen on deaf ears as it appears that a majority of the council members support the ordinance, which is currently under review by the City Attorney’s Office. The issue was first broached in 2007 with 11-0 support when the council asked the city attorney to draft the ordinance.

“Some people are very vocal about not being responsible,” Parks said. “These are the same ones who are complaining, ‘When are you going to fix my sidewalk?’ “

If the ordinance passes, property owners will have three years before they have to start paying for repairs and accept legal liability for accidents. This time period will be used to educate the public and create a notification system for requiring repairs, which could cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000. Parks said the city will retain some of the liability for injuries on broken sidewalks.

He added that most cities throughout the state require property owners to maintain upkeep of their sidewalks and Los Angeles will be no different.

A sampling of cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego, revealed this to be true. In fact, San Francisco even goes as far as to employ sidewalk inspectors who are responsible for canvassing the city in search of violators. Offenders are given a notice that requires repairs in 30 days, which could include grinding down tree roots and replacing missing sewer vent covers.

“This has been the law forever, LA has been nice and done this” for property owners, said San Francisco Department of Public Works spokeswoman Christine Falvey.

Vosburgh of Howard Jarvis doesn’t see it that way.

“The sidewalks in the neighborhoods are atrocious,” he said. “I’ve seen places with an 18-inch gap between the sidewalk and the dirt because of a tree root. The state of disrepair has been left to the city and now they want to shift that to the homeowner. We’re seeing them raise taxes and charges just because they can.”

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