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Wednesday, August 8,2012

Funding sidewalks

Would city voters approve a $2.5 million tax increase over three years for fixing sidewalks? A millage is in the works — and has tentative support from the mayor.

by Sam Inglot

The city of Lansing may be going back to voters for a second November election in a row asking for more public infrastructure funding. This time, it’s for sidewalks.

Lansing City Councilwoman Jessica Yorko is leading the initial stages of a proposal that would ask voters at the Nov. 6 election to allow for .5 mills in additional funding “exclusively for the purpose of building, replacing, and repairing sidewalks.” The proposed resolution is before the Council’s Public Services Committee, which Yorko chairs, and seeks to amend the City Charter to increase the city’s millage rate from 19.44 mills to 19.94 mills for three years beginning on July 1. Council would need to approve the measure at its Aug. 27 meeting to meet the ballot language deadline, Yorko said.

Officials say sidewalk funding his continually declined in recent years, causing safety and accessibility concerns. The proposal appears to have Mayor Virg Bernero’s tentative support.

“Mayor Bernero is leaning toward supporting the millage proposal,” Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said in an email. “Sidewalks across the city are in serious need of repair and a 3-year millage would allow the city to make significant improvements to existing sidewalks as well as closing sidewalk gaps.”

In June, Council members agreed the sidewalk gap closure program could use more funding after advice from the citizen Public Service Board, but it’s uncertain whether a Council majority will approve putting another millage proposal before voters. 

The millage would cost homeowners 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable home value. It would take effect July 1, 2013, and generate about $870,000 in the first year and nearly $2.5 million over three years, city projections show. 

In a special May 2011 election, city voters rejected 4-mill property tax increase for police, fire and road services 52 percent to 48 percent. In the November city election, voters approved the proposal — 1.5 mills each for police and fire and 1 mill for road maintenance — by a 52-48 percent margin.

The city’s sidewalk problems are two-fold, said Chad Gamble, director of the city Public Service Department. There is the standard maintenance and repair and then there is gap closure, where entire sections of sidewalks are missing. According to Gamble, the city needs $1 million a year for appropriate sidewalk upkeep and $9.7 million is estimated to be the total cost of gap closure.

A 2005 report compiled by the Public Service Department outlines which sidewalk gaps exist on city-owned major streets and state-owned trunk lines, which are maintained by the city. Of the areas identified in the 2005 report, nearly six miles of the highest priority sidewalks have had gaps closed to date, while almost 65 miles of major street gap closure sidewalks remain unfixed. There are six priority levels, with 1-A being the most important. The report doesn’t include neighborhood streets. The Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council and AARP have been doing walkability audits of neighborhood sidewalks since last year, pumping the data back to the city. Gamble said the data is being organized for a new study. 

While the millage wouldn’t be enough to cover the gap closure costs or cover maintenance expenses entirely, Gamble said it would be a much-needed boost to the city’s “woefully inadequate” sidewalk funding.

The Council’s Public Service Committee first looked at the proposed Charter amendment on Aug. 1, Yorko said, adding that there are still a lot of details to work out and conversations to be had. The committee, which also includes Council members Kathie Dunbar and Tina Houghton, met with Gamble on Tuesday, but Yorko said they’ll still need to meet with the Finance Department before bringing the idea to the City Council at the next Committee of the Whole meeting. 

The mayoral-appointed Public Service Board gave a presentation to the Council in June showing that more funding for sidewalks is a high priority for the board.

The last two city budget proposals didn’t include any General Fund money dedicated to sidewalks. However, the Council amended the current fiscal year budget earlier this year, allocating $60,000 to fill the most critical gaps, which Bernero supported.

The citizen board in June suggested another way of fixing sidewalks is to restructure how property owners are assessed to bear less of a burden on city coffers. Before 2006, if a sidewalk was damaged, property owners would shoulder 100 percent of the costs for repair. In 2006, the number was lowered to 50 percent and the city pays the other half.

The state of Lansing’s sidewalks has been on the Public Service Board’s radar for years, board member Shirley Rodgers said. In fact, it’s one of its highest priorities. 

Although she wouldn’t comment on the proposed millage until she had more details, she said, “We think that there ought to be some funding for sidewalks in all of our budgets and whatever the Council thinks is the best way to approach that, the board would likely be supportive.”

Officials say that if the 540 miles of Lansing sidewalks were in pristine condition, there would fewer hit by cars or falling or tripping and the overall appearance of the city would improve. 

“Sidewalks enhance the appearance of the city,” Rodgers said. “We’re encouraging citizens to walk for health reasons, and they need to have safe sidewalks to accomplish that. It shows the public and businesses that we’re trying to attract that we do take care of our infrastructure.”

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