Council clamping down on sidewalk petitions

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 07:25 PM

After repeated prodding by a councilwoman, city officials are about to change policy to ensure that the sidewalks that planners say are needed receive priority when neighborhoods offer to help pay for them.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the change March 4, but approval is all but certain following the positive reviews it got from members during a recent work session.

“This really addresses” the problem, Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.

The change targets the petition process neighborhoods can use to get a sidewalk project funded by the council and the Public Works Department.

Catotti for several years now has complained that the petition process created loopholes for neighborhoods to get relatively low-priority projects ahead of high-priority ones in the construction queue.

She argued that city officials should hew closely to the construction priorities the council set in 2006 when it endorsed the Durham Walks plan. The plan spelled out which streets and intersections deserved attention, based on factors such as proximity to schools.

But the petition process to date has allowed neighborhoods to request sidewalks regardless of whether they’re in the plan, provided homeowners agree to pay an extra “assessment,” over and above their taxes, to cover part of the bill.

The impending policy change affects the subsidy and assessment aspect of petitions.

Public Works officials say if a neighborhood petitions for a project that’s already somewhere on the Durham Walks priority list, they’ll move it higher in the rankings and cap homeowners’ assessment at $35 per foot of sidewalk.

Given recent construction costs, that translates into about a 10 percent subsidy, said Nathan McHenry, a Public Works administrator.

But since costs vary by project, the city could wind up paying a deeper subsidy for particularly expensive sidewalks or if inflation returns in a big way to the construction market.

The $35-a-foot assessment is a large increase over the $5-a-foot cap on such levies that’s been in place since 1985.

But after March 4, there will be no cap at all on assessments for petition projects that ask for sidewalks that aren’t on the Durham Walks plan. Neighborhoods asking for work outside the plan will have to agree to pay 100 percent of the project’s cost.

“Folks outside the plan need to be willing to pay more,” McHenry said, adding that the department would give neighborhoods an estimated cost.

That estimate won’t be a guaranteed maximum price, so for neighborhoods, asking for a project that’s not on the Durham Walks list is “going to be a pig in a poke,” Councilman Don Moffitt pointed out.

Council members agreed that, because of the assessment charges, officials should insist that would-be petitioners obtain signatures from 70 percent of the homeowners who would have to shoulder the fees.

The city will allow homeowners to pay assessments over time, by taking up to eight years to settle their bill.