LA council members balk at shifting sidewalk repairs to property owners

L.A.'s plan to repair sidewalks is still working its way through city committees
L.A.'s plan to repair sidewalks is still working its way through city committees
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Members of the Los Angeles City Council on Monday veered away from a proposal to shift the financial responsibility for repairs of tree-buckled sidewalks off of the city and onto residential and commercial property owners.

Council members Paul Krekorian and Joe Buscaino, in a joint meeting of their respective Finance and Public Works committees, had proposed such a change, but several members balked at the idea.

That idea, dubbed "Fix and Release," was for the city to pay to fix sidewalks citywide and transfer responsibility for future repairs to homeowners. It was a key proposal on a menu of proposals offered by the City Administrative Office to get long-delayed sidewalk repairs going.

Crafting a policy that will actually get L.A.'s residential sidewalks fixed has been a difficult-to-achieve balancing act. The City Council could vote to shift financial responsibility for repairs to property owners, as state law generally allows. But homeowners could rebel if the shift is too rapid or expensive, and that could cost council members support.

Homeowner Joe Stringer personified that pushback in his comments to council members Monday. He complained that even if the city fixed his sidewalk at taxpayer expense, city-owned trees would continue to tear up the walks in front of his house, creating an expense he would have to bear in the future.

"That's double-dipping," Stringer said.

But if the council doesn't shift enough of the cost away from the city, Los Angeles would not have enough money to make the necessary repairs, and walkways would remain the hazardous jumble they are today.

Council members Mitch Englander, Bob Blumenfield, Curren Price Jr. and Paul Koretz were opposed to transferring responsibility to homeowners.

Ultimately, Krekorian proposed a repairs program putting aside for now the release of responsibility.

Other potential stumbling blocks to a citywide sidewalk repair project became apparent during a series of public meetings the council members held. For example, controversies can erupt within neighborhoods over how many trees to leave intact or remove and how the city will decide whether to call a tree doctor or a tree removal service.

The council also needs a policy addressing how people on fixed incomes could afford sidewalk fixes in front of their homes, especially in the city's oldest neighborhoods. The council members favored capping the cost to the city of some repairs to the costliest properties, but did not set actual limits. That could happen at a future committee meeting later this year when the proposal returns for a vote.

City sidewalks have been deteriorating since before the 1970s, when the city agreed, in exchange for a quickly spent few million dollars in federal grants, to take over financial responsibility to fix sidewalks damaged by street trees.

It was a limited exception to the state law that defaults responsibility for sidewalk repairs to the adjacent property owner. Nevertheless, within decades sidewalks all over the city were cracking, gapping and heaving up great ramps of concrete from tree roots — but also due to age, lack of maintenance and other civic or private negligence.

The city's plan to fix crumbling sidewalks has been a long time in the making, further delayed by financial restraints imposed during the Great Recession and, more recently, by city officials' indecision. For example, the city council put aside about $27 million for sidewalk repairs in recent years, but it did not decide to spend the money until the delay was publicized this year.

The need for a comprehensive plan gained urgency when disabled city residents won a settlement this year requiring the city to spend at least $31 million each year on repairs and curb ramps.