The Public Eye

Auditor recommends raising fee for sidewalk repairs in Sacramento

A sidewalk on P Street between 17th and 18th streets in Sacramento.
A sidewalk on P Street between 17th and 18th streets in Sacramento. Bee file, 2010

An auditor who reviewed the city of Sacramento’s sidewalk repair program says the city isn’t charging property owners as much as it could for repair-related services and recommends the city consider raising its fee from $40 to as much as $210.

That fee doesn’t include the cost of actually repairing a sidewalk, which can cost homeowners $1,000 or much more.

City Auditor Jorge Oseguera, in a report to be presented to the city this week, said raising the administrative fee would help the city cut into a two-year backlog of unsafe and unfixed sidewalks. The fee is imposed on property owners whose sidewalks have been designated for repair, and helps pay to run the city’s sidewalk repair program, including the cost of sending inspectors to check sidewalks before and after repairs.

Oseguera, in his report, points out that more than 40 percent of sidewalks identified for repairs in the city of Sacramento are put on a waitlist for at least six months.

“If the city charged an administrative fee of $210 instead of $40, it would have more fully recovered the administrative and inspection costs of sidewalk repairs,” the city’s auditor said in his report. “We estimate this change in fees would have increased the reimbursement by more than $300,000 annually.”

Speaking to The Sacramento Bee, Oseguera acknowledged such a fee increase could be unpopular among property owners. “I understand it is politically sensitive, but, given the backlog, everything should be on the table.”

City Public Works chief Jerry Way, whose department oversees sidewalk repairs, said he will consider the recommendation but is wary. Way pointed out that the city’s backlog is not unusual, and is shorter than many other cities and counties.

“Low administrative fees are a form of cost sharing with property owners,” Way wrote in a formal response to the audit. “If, after analysis, it should be determined that fee adjustment would result in savings to the city without being unduly burdensome to property owners, then Public Works will consider the policy implications of making such modifications to the program.”

City Councilman Allen Warren, who chairs the audit committee that will review Oseguera’s report on Thursday, said he recently rode an electric wheelchair around North Sacramento, at a constituent’s request, and it opened his eyes to the difficulties some people face when negotiating sidewalks that are broken or don’t have curb ramps at corners. He said he doesn’t have any specific proposal for improvements at the moment, but wants the auditor’s report to prompt a bigger discussion on the usability of city sidewalks.

The sidewalk repair fee issue is not new. For more than three decades, the city maintained the fee at $20. In 2010, when the city was searching for ways to boost revenue in response to the recession, officials calculated that the administrative overhead costs to the city for its sidewalk repair program had increased to $185 per broken sidewalk.

Officials considered a series of stepped increases that would have brought the fee to $200, but ultimately backed off, and imposed the current $40 fee instead, saying they wanted to minimize the financial burden on property owners.

City Councilman Steve Cohn, who sits on the audit committee, said the city could consider increasing the fee in small increments, over time, to avoid “sticker shock.”

The inspection fee is only a small part of the price property owners have to pay when the city deems their sidewalk substandard.

The city pays for repairs on curbs and gutters, but property owners must cover the cost of repairing the sidewalk in front of their property, a fact that comes as a shock to some. The average cost to property owners last year for a sidewalk repair at their property was $1,100, according to Oseguera’s analysis, though costs vary greatly depending on the size of the repair. Most repairs cost property owners $500. But some cost $4,500 or more.

Cohn, who requested the audit, said he asked for it partly because some property owners questioned whether sidewalk repair workers were calling in complaints to increase their business. Others have complained about individuals, such as neighbors, who may report sidewalk problems out of spite. Auditor Oseguera said that the identity of callers who report problem sidewalks is not typically known, and that he is not aware of any abuse problems. “The reporting mechanism seems adequate.”

Way, the Public Works chief, said he also is not concerned about who might be calling to report defective sidewalks. “I don’t really care. Our mission is to fix the sidewalks, if they are defective, no matter who it comes from.”

The city typically requires repairs of sidewalks that are displaced by three-quarters of an inch or more, but there may be other circumstances that cause the city to determine a sidewalk needs work, he said. When called to a site, inspectors are instructed to check the sidewalk for about 50 to 75 feet in both directions for other sidewalk deficiencies, and to report them for repairs, Way said.

Oseguera also conducted an analysis of repair policies in other cities and counties. Nine of 15 local governments surveyed require property owners to pay for sidewalk repairs, including Roseville, Elk Grove and West Sacramento. The county of Sacramento, however, pays for all repairs itself, albeit with tax revenue obtained from residents and others. The county has a several-year sidewalk repair backlog, according to Oseguera.

Rancho Cordova, Folsom and Citrus Heights governments also pay for sidewalk repairs. Rancho Cordova tried last year to require property owners to be individually responsible for repairs in front of their property but backed off when faced with vociferous opposition from residents.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.