The previous meeting of the Legal Committee ended with Councilmember Ryan Wallace (Third Ward) proposing that the City issue bonds for $5 million to pay for sidewalk repair throughout the city. At the meeting of the Legal Committee last night, members of the committee backed away from that idea in favor of pursuing a Sidewalk Improvement District plan.
There were objections to the bonding idea because it would raise taxes (it was estimated that a $5 million bond would increase the annual budget by $350,000), and the burden would fall exclusively on property owners who must pay property taxes. Councilmember Margaret Morris (First Ward), who chairs the committee, argued that "the community version tries to spread it out more equitably." By "community version" she meant a plan similar to what's in place in Ithaca, which charges an annual sidewalk fee, separate from property tax, to all properties regardless of their tax status. Churches, government buildings, the hospital, the school district, and other not-for-profits that are exempt from paying property tax would still be responsible for paying sidewalk fees.
Other members of the Legal Committee present, Theo Anthony (Fourth Ward) and Mohammed Rony (Second Ward), agreed with Morris that some version of the Ithaca model of Sidewalk Improvement Districts should be pursued. This is pretty much where the Legal Committee was in addressing the problem more than three years ago.
Even if there is consensus on the approach, much remains to be determined before the Common Council can adopt a plan that will satisfy the Department of Justice, and the deadline for having a plan in place is the end of this year.
First is the matter of establishing Sidewalk Improvement Districts. Ithaca has five. Morris and others have maintained that the entire city should be one Sidewalk Improvement District. Wallace contended that areas of the city where there are no sidewalks, most notably Mt. Ray Estates, where Wallace owns a condo, should be excluded. Although some of his arguments seemed reminiscent of those that led to the secession of Greenport from the City of Hudson back in 1837, it is not unreasonable to think that property owners in areas of the city that have no sidewalks should not be required to pay an annual fee for sidewalk maintenance.
Second is the matter of establishing rates for sidewalk assessments. Draft legislation created in 2019 suggested the following: "The annual maintenance fee for non-developable lots and sliver lots is $0; for low foot-traffic lots, it is $70; and for all other lots, it is $140." Those figures have no reality or any relation to the actual amount required to finance needed sidewalk repairs. Nor does it seem fair that the fee for a property with 26 linear feet of sidewalk (the street frontage of the standard lot in Hudson) should be the same as that for a property that sits on two or three lots or a corner property with upwards of 100 linear feet of sidewalk.
At one point in the discussion, Wallace shared an estimate that "roughly 20 percent of the existing sidewalks need repair." My personal experience suggests otherwise. Based on my regular dog walks around the First Ward, it is my supposition that, with the exception of Warren Street, where the brick-paved sidewalks installed during Urban Renewal were replaced with cement sidewalks around the last turn of the century, only about 20 percent of the sidewalks do not require repair. Identifying high priority areas, creating a budget for addressing the problems, and determining the fees to finance the repairs will be no small task.
Peter Bujanow suggested that Hyman Hayes Associates, the group that did the sidewalk audit required by the Department of Justice back in October 2020, might be helpful to the committee in charting its next steps. The plan is for a representative of HHA to address the committee in a Zoom meeting sometime next week.
Toward the end of the meeting, Wallace reported that an unnamed "city partner" fell because of a hole in the sidewalk somewhere on State Street and had to go to the hospital for stitches.
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Update: The estimate that "roughly 20 percent of the existing sidewalks need repair" was based on a report submitted to the Common Council Public Works Committee by Rob Perry, DPW superintendent, in 2018. Perry has informed Gossips that the 20 percent referred to sidewalks that require total replacement. According to Perry, "Most sidewalks just need repair. Maybe cutting down, maybe filling gaps, maybe replacing a panel or two."