Why LA won't be fixing your sidewalk anytime soon

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At least seven of the 35 candidates running for Los Angeles City Council in Tuesday's primary election are promising to fix L.A.'s miles of broken sidewalks.

But the next City Council would have to make big changes before you're likely to see sidewalks near your home or business repaired.

Los Angeles hasn't had a citywide residential sidewalk repair program since 2009. It only fixes sidewalks outside city-owned buildings  - and while it's set aside $30 million for repairs over the past two years, it's spent only $3 million because of policy issues and staffing problems.

Tina Sigler's sidewalk illustrates the problem. The roots of a camphor tree outside her Mar Vista Home tipped up a slab of her sidewalk about a foot.

"It was just gapped open so you could actually see the tree roots and just dirt," she said.

She made phone calls and sent certified letters and emails to the city, but nothing happened until her complaint letter was published in the local newspaper. Her councilman sent a work crew to her house the next day.

But the crew didn't level the heaved-up sidewalk as she expected. They added an asphalt slope that meets the tipped-up slab at its peak. Now, local kids use it as a skateboard ramp. The asphalt has now begun separating from the concrete slab.

"Oh my god, what if somebody falls in that hole right there, or loses their balance and I might potentially get sued?" she said.

She's not willing to pay the repair cost herself. Because she pays property and sales taxes, she feels the city should be on the hook.

"There is money allotted in the city coffers to pay for this, why should I pay anything at all?" she said.

She's right when she says it's the city's responsibility to pay for repairs of tree-damaged sidewalks.

But they were not always the city's burden.

Whose sidewalks are they, anyway?

In 1911, a state law declared sidewalk repairs to be the financial responsibility of the adjoining property owner.

In the mid-70s, Los Angeles accepted a $2 million dollar federal grant for sidewalk repairs. In return, the city took over financial responsibility for sidewalks damaged by trees.

City Councilman Paul Krekorian called it, "a terrific idea, except that the funding ran out within two years of the program beginning." The city would need more than $1 billion to live up to the promise. 

From 2005 to 2009, the city offered to pay half the cost of residential sidewalk repairs, but pulled the plug on that when homeowner demand for repairs outstripped the city's funds.

The city doesn't even have a handle on how many sidewalks need fixing.

Some say 4,600 miles of sidewalk are faulty. But Krekorian said the methodology of that survey is suspect.

In 2012, the city got an estimate to inventory the sidewalks. The price: $10 million dollars. That didn't get approved either.

A group of council members from the city's finance and public works committees will be making another attempt at setting a policy for prioritizing and paying for billions of dollars in sidewalk repairs needed on all types of property. That work stars in April.

Sidewalk repairs stalled, millions unspent

The council has $27 million sitting in a sidewalk trust fund. The city lacks a policy for deciding which residential and business sidewalks to fix, so the money will be used to repair sidewalks adjacent to city-owned property where the city's responsibility is most clearly defined.

Another reason for the stalled spending: Krekorian said he had advised the city to avoid spending money that could be counted toward the settlement of a lawsuit by disabled residents over bad sidewalks.

Willits v. Los Angeles is a class action lawsuit that claims the city's many miles of bad sidewalks violate the rights of the disabled.

"That was important to me, that we made sure that how we spent that money was consistent with good policy and with a good resolution of the Willits Case," Krekorian said.

Attorney Linda Dardarian said the city shouldn't use her clients' case as an excuse.

"The fact that there's a lawsuit should not in any way inhibit a responsible government from working toward fixing a problem the lawsuit addresses," Dardarian said.

If it's anything like the settlements in earlier disability sidewalk access lawsuits in California, Los Angeles could be facing a huge bill when the Willits settlement is announced. That could come as soon as this month. 

Caltrans in 2010 pledged to spend $1.1 billion dollars fixing sidewalks and curb ramps along state highways to settle a similar lawsuit. In 2003, Sacramento pledged to spend one-fifth of its transportation budget over the next 30 years making sidewalks accessible.

That's why Councilman Bernard Parks found the stall in spending illogical.

"How could that be in our interest to have bad sidewalks when we're being sued for having bad sidewalks?" he said.

Parks wants property owners to pay

Parks has been the council's contrarian on sidewalks.

He wants to shift financial responsibility back onto property owners, but says the council won't do it. Voters wouldn't like it.

But he said voters will end up paying, one way or another. Whatever means the city uses to raise the money needed for repairs - bonds, taxes or whatever - will ultimately come from the public.

"The people are going to pay for it," Parks said. "So why are we quibbling, like we don't want them to know they're going to pay for it?"

Parks said he wants the city out of the sidewalk repair business because city workers' salaries and benefits have become too expensive. He said he prefers to put the work in the hands of private contractors to create more local jobs and get the work done faster.

He wants the city to limit its role in sidewalk repairs to inspecting sidewalks and notifying property owners that repairs are needed, issuing permits for the work, and compiling a list of qualified private or nonprofit companies to do the work.

He also wants the city to adopt a program that would require a property owners' sidewalks to be repaired when the land is sold.

Parks leaves office later this year. His seat representing Council District 8 in South Los Angeles is one of those up for grabs in this week's elections.

Before he goes, Parks said he'll spend at least $2 million of his own office's discretionary budget fixing sidewalks in his district, staring with 400 worst examples.

The sidewalk outside Benjamin Provo's mom's house was one of those.

"She couldn't even come out the front door," Provo said.

Parks sent a work crew - he hired a private contractor - to take out the tree that was buckling the concrete and replace the sidewalk.

Where's the repair money coming from?

The city has a number of options on how to revamp and fund sidewalk repairs, including:

  • Bonds -- The city could issue bonds to raise money for sidewalk repairs. It's a fancy name for borrowing. The bonds would have to be repaid with interest. The city would have to identify the source of repayment, whether it's out of the city's general fund or a new tax.
  • Sales tax -- A half-cent sales tax proposed last year by the city's top administrator, Miguel Santana, could have raised $4.5 billion for streets and sidewalks. It was not approved.
  • Assessment district -- Property owners could vote to create a district to create a special assessment on their properties to pay for sidewalk repairs. Assessment districts already exist for street lights in L.A.
  • 50-50 program -- Between 2005 and 2009, sidewalks along about 2,000 parcels were repaired when the city and property owners split the expense. The program ran out of money. Some caution that this is only a partial solution, because some property owners are unable or unwilling to foot half the bill.
  • Point of sale -- Repairing sidewalks outside a property could be made a requirement before a sale can close. A city inspector would certify sidewalks are in good condition before closing. If necessary, the city could pay for the repair and place a lien on the sale proceeds.
  • Point of permit -- Similar to point of sale, a property owner would have to fix sidewalks before receiving a permit for substantial construction on the property.

Do you have a broken or buckled sidewalk?  Tell your story and send a photo to KPCC.

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