A Concrete Explanation

City sidewalk inspector Dennis Daly says keeping even a single square of unblemished concrete is a savings for homeowners
Daniel Corrigan

The letter didn't bear Ted Kaczynski's name. All the same, ripping open the envelope left Carol Becker feeling shell-shocked. Several weeks earlier, a sidewalk inspector had come by and found fault with a sizable portion of the walkway abutting Becker's home off 48th Avenue in south Minneapolis's Longfellow neighborhood. Shortly afterward, an assessment notice arrived telling her she would have to pay approximately $1,000 to replace several of the six by six concrete panels in her sidewalk. Becker reeled. Then she started dialing.

She called Dan Bauer, head of the city's Sidewalk Inspections Division, a tiny island within the Public Works department. Becker asked that Bauer send the inspector back to her house to reevaluate his work. After looking again at the panels in question, the inspector agreed fewer needed replacing. His decision lowered Becker's assessment by $400, but raised a pointed question for the 37-year-old homeowner.

"What are the standards?" asks Becker, a financial analyst for the Metropolitan Council and a former employee in the city's budget office. "If I can get my assessment reduced by talking to the inspector, does that mean the standards are being applied differently based on whether you ask questions?"

Becker didn't stop at contacting the inspections office. She fired off a letter to council member Sandy Colvin Roy, whose 12th Ward includes the Longfellow neighborhood, requesting that the council examine the city's guidelines for sidewalk repair. Colvin Roy says she plans to approach fellow council member Dore Mead, chairwoman of the council's Transportation and Public Works Committee, about having that panel review the policy in the fall. And First Ward council member Paul Ostrow, prodded by angry constituents, held a meeting to let property owners air their sidewalk beefs.

And so another season of sidewalk discontent is abloom. If summer in Minneapolis carries a handful of certainties--the media's deep and inexplicable fascination with boats made of milk cartons, bipolar weather patterns, the Twins mired in last place--add one more to the list: homeowners grousing about sidewalk repair.

When it comes to walkways, the rub lies within the Minneapolis City Charter. The hoary governing document requires that both residential and commercial property owners maintain the public right of way adjacent to their lots. Despite the charter's longevity--it turns 80 this year--each summer homeowners receive a neck-snapping jolt when they learn they're expected to foot the bill.

The surprise results in part from residents absorbing the thump of yet another special assessment. Minneapolis already charges homeowners for water and sewer services and garbage removal. Tack on a sidewalk assessment--generally ranging from $300 to $1,200--and property taxes that continue to lurch upward, and phones in city hall begin bleating. "Their property taxes are increasing and they're also being nickel-and-dimed for this other stuff," Tenth Ward council member Lisa McDonald says. "I think that's what people are reacting against."

Last month freelance writer David Brauer got nicked for $300 to replace two sidewalk panels in front of his home along Blaisdell Avenue in the Kingfield neighborhood. Brauer, president of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, runs the online forum Minneapolis-Issues, a community bulletin board that in recent weeks has drawn a stream of postings from residents holding forth on sidewalk fees. No consensus has been revealed as to whether homeowners would prefer to junk individual assessments in favor of the city paying for the repairs through property taxes. The latter option, some city officials speculate, could precipitate a bump in taxes or the trimming of other municipal services.

But Brauer figures that Minneapolis already collects enough property taxes to allow officials to pay for sidewalk repairs from the city's overall budget. "To me, sidewalks should be like repairing a road and be part of the city's bigger infrastructure. Make all of us pay evenly."

St. Paul, by way of comparison, assesses residents half the cost of sidewalk repairs, with the city soaking up the difference. That solution, however, might prove a tough sell in Minneapolis, because the city canvasses only a sliver of its 2,000 miles of sidewalks every year. In spring, the Inspections Division's Bauer divides the city into three geographical districts--north, southwest, and southeast, roughly--and assigns one of his three inspectors to each area. They hoof across about ten percent of their respective districts from late March or early April until November, scanning sidewalks in neighborhoods that typically have not been graced by an inspector's soles for a decade or more.

Owing to each neighborhood's sidewalks receiving a face-lift only every ten to twelve years, the griping heard from clutches of sidewalk-assessed residents in different corners of the city never quite escalates into a full-throated roar of protest. The agitation may be further muted by the fact that homeowners don't have to pay assessments in one lump sum. The city allows them to spread the cost out over five years by adding the bill to their property taxes at minimal interest, according to Brian Lokkesmoe, deputy director of Public Works. Bauer says some city officials have talked of doubling that payback period to ten years, an idea he supports.

Each year the city bids out a contract ranging from $300,000 to $400,000 for each of the three sidewalk districts. The volume of work the contracts involve, Lokkesmoe says, helps keep down the cost compared with what a private contractor would charge homeowners. The city levies roughly $1 million a year in sidewalk assessments, or about the same amount of the three contracts combined. He also notes that, contrary to popular perception, sidewalk fees do not underwrite other city agencies or programs, or cover liability claims made by pedestrians in walkway-related accidents. Additional revenue generated by a small overhead fee attached to every project funds the six-member sidewalk inspections office.

Although the math appears clean and neat, homeowners wonder if the city plays fair in providing them a chance to explore alternatives. The notice that residents receive informs them the city will go ahead with repairs unless they hire a private contractor. The catch: The contractor has to pull a permit on the project within 15 days of a homeowner getting the notice, a deadline intended to help jump-start the repair process, Bauer says. The notice does not include a list of city-approved contractors, placing the burden on residents to call the division to find out which contractors are eligible.

All of this means it's "almost impossible" to track down a contractor and obtain an estimate, Carol Becker contends. "Fifteen days isn't a long time if you have a life," she says. "I wound up just going with the city."

Beyond the sting of assessments, property owners complain, the city's repairs process has cracks in it larger than any found in their sidewalks. They claim inspectors "get a little too vigilant," to borrow council member McDonald's paraphrasing of one resident, in checking to see whether sidewalk squares are no more than an inch above or below one another. They also echo Becker's questions about whether inspectors give a break to homeowners who haggle about their sidewalks compared with those who just gulp and pay up.

Lokkesmoe and Bauer deny that the fees levied depend on a homeowner's mulish persistence or sunny disposition. Bauer says inspectors, while trying to remain reasonably flexible, have long used the same measurement standards. "If the amount of the assessment is reduced," Lokkesmoe says, "it's because the quantity of work is reduced. There isn't any discretion on the price of the work." He adds that a "surprising number" of homeowners seeking a uniform appearance to their walkway and ask the city to replace more panels than inspectors deem necessary.

Residents peeved about sidewalk fees want the council to address one other thorny matter: When city-planted trees cause city-poured sidewalks to heave and crack, why does the homeowner end up paying? Bauer offers a slight shrug, then refers to Chapter 8, Section 12 of the city charter. "It says property owners are responsible for their sidewalks. That's been the policy since the 1920s. We just try to enforce it," he says.

Enforcing the policy in northeast Minneapolis's Waite Park neighborhood falls to Dennis Daly, one of the city's three inspectors. Daly empathizes with homeowners, realizing that if he steps on a crack, he could break your monthly budget. "I used up every nickel I had to buy my house, so I know what it's like to have to worry about assessments," he says. "Money's tight for everyone."

Still, some folks will part with their money even when Daly tries to save them a few bucks. On this day Daly uses a can of white spray paint to tag panels of sidewalk for condemnation along Pierce Street. An elderly man shuffles toward Daly as he marks eight panels in front of his home. Waving a bony finger at the ground, the man asks, "You gonna do all of 'em?"

Daly explains that he originally thought the city would need to replace ten panels, but that a pair appears in good enough condition to leave alone. The two men talk for a few more minutes, then the homeowner springs a surprise on Daly. "Go ahead," the man says. "Put in all ten. The heck with it."

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