WALLA WALLA — City officials are struggling to find funding to fix a mess of uneven, deteriorated, inaccessible and, in many cases, nonexistent sidewalks.
During a Council work session last month, Public Works Director Ki Bealey delivered a report that detailed sidewalk funding obstacles facing the city in 2014. Some of those deal with sidewalk-related insurance costs, but the majority are centered on creating a plan to meet new guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The primary issue is having sufficient resources available to make improvements,” Bealey wrote in an email to the Union-Bulletin. “ADA, within the public right of way, falls under the purview of the street fund, which as you know has limited resources.”
In 2010, ADA was updated to include more stringent requirements, which include 4-foot minimum widths for sidewalks, 2 percent maximum grades for ramps and a limit of one-half inch for the rise between the street and ramp.
The new guidelines also require cities to come up with a funding mechanism for maintenance and upkeep of existing ADA ramps and public facilities by next year.
This month, the city’s finance committee members will discuss budget options for sidewalks with the goal of implementing a maintenance program in 2014. But their job will be made more difficult by yet another sidewalk funding issue.
Next year the city will also get hit with a $75,000 increase in liability insurance, a 33 percent hike.
The largest source of claims against the city is backed-up sewers, for which the city paid just over $140,000 from 2008-2012. The second leading source of liability claims is unsafe sidewalks, which cost the city just under $130,000 over the same five years.
And there is no shifting the costs of the latter claims to residents who fail to fix their sidewalks because courts have held that a city cannot transfer its liability to the property owner for sidewalk-related claims.
“The responsibility still lies with the owner for the cost of the sidewalks but not the liability,” Bealey reported. “The city cannot put that liability on the property owner. So that is why you are seeing these claims showing up and the city paying settlements for those.”
While the financial future for sidewalks will be a challenge for the city, the past few years have still seen great strides.
Bealey noted the city has added miles of sidewalks and dozens of ADA ramps through projects like the current Rose Street repaving and last year’s $1.7 million Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Program in the Edith and Carrie avenues neighborhood.
“We are doing a great job ... but frankly it is not enough to meet the requirements of (ADA) Title Two,” Bealey said.
But to Lia Renick, the city has only chipped away at the numerous buckled, broken and inaccessible sidewalks that are a challenge to her.
“There are some roads that don’t have sidewalks at all,” said Renick, a wheelchair user. “I have to ride out in the streets two to three blocks before I can get up on a sidewalk.”
When Renick does make it up, she said she then has to watch out for bumps where her motorized wheelchair can get stuck.
“There are roots that grow out from the trees and stuff that tears up the sidewalks,” she said. “I have gotten stuck until somebody can free me. The longest I have been stuck on one of them is 20 minutes until somebody stops and gets me out.”
City officials don’t know how many feet of sidewalk are either missing or in need of repair. But one agency is attempting to keep track of the number and location of unsafe sidewalks.
Earlier this year, the recently formed Walla Walla Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization began distributing sidewalk survey packets to volunteers who take notes every time they come across a buckle, bump or other unsafe sidewalk condition.
So far, fewer than a dozen people have volunteered to fill out the surveys. MPO officials expect to see the first survey results later this month, and once final results come in the city may find itself under even more financial pressure to fix what have become documented unsafe conditions.
Even after his presentation to Council last month, Bealey noted that all the unsafe sidewalks he reported on will now have to be fixed.
“With all the pictures I have taken, I have now directed staff to go out there,” he said. “And you have to go out there now and try and mitigate what we got there or at least raise the awareness, whether it be to paint those gaps to put in asphalt fill.”
The cost factor will most likely trip up future sidewalk work.
Each ADA accessible curb ramp costs about $5,000 to install. Bealey estimated an entire four-corner intersection could cost $20,000 to $25,000. And if there are any rights of way issues, those costs climb.
As for installing sidewalks, city engineers reported a cost of $40 per square yard for larger sidewalk addition projects. But smaller projects that require removal of old concrete, cutting of tree roots, leveling and other work would likely cost much more.
Bealey said funding for sidewalk fixes and maintenance could come from three areas: a portion of the two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax for road improvements, increased property taxes and grants.
City officials, however, couldn’t ignore the 1,000-pound funding gorilla in City Hall and discussed if property owners could be made to pay for sidewalk repairs.
“There is a methodology where we can step in, repair the sidewalk and then assess the abutting property owner for the cost of the repair or for the construction of that sidewalk,” City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.
Under city ordinance 12.16.020 and 12.16.040, “property owners are responsible to maintain sidewalks in safe conditions ... free of any and all obstructions or defects” and “the burden and expense of constructing, maintaining and repairing sidewalks” belong to the abutting property owner.
In the past, the city has required sidewalks to be installed or updated with new developments or other significant property changes. But Bealey was unaware of any incident where the city made a sidewalk repair and billed the individual property owner.
“If we are held liable for injury on sidewalks, it looks like then we should be aggressively requiring adjacent property owners to repair their sidewalks to cut our liability,” Council member Jerry Cummins said. “That is a two-edged sword, because the next thing we are going to say is many people in Walla Walla cannot afford to repair their sidewalks.”
Alfred Diaz can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8325.