By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
RIVERVIEW – City council members met recently to discuss citywide sidewalk flag replacement, how to determine which should be replaced, and when residents or the city pay for a repair.
City Manager Douglas Drysdale said a bill signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in early January gives local governments the same protection private businesses have when people trip and fall on a damaged sidewalk: the “open and obvious” defense.
Under the defense, a local government can argue that a sidewalk defect should have been readily noticed by the person injured – if it can be seen, it should be avoided. Opponents say the ruling gives local governments immunity to lawsuits, and removes the incentive to fix sidewalk hazards.
Drysdale said city sidewalks include those in parks and by schools. Flags — or squares — that are cracked, crumbled, or raised 1 inch or more above the level may be deemed hazardous.
Drysdale said with the exception of Trenton, neighboring communities bill homeowners for sidewalk flags that need repair, and typically allow the payments to be spread over four or five years.
He said Trenton budgets $200,000 a year for sidewalk repairs, which city officials believe is less than the liability costs it could face for not repairing sidewalks.
Drysdale said currently when homeowners are billed for sidewalk repairs, annual invoices are frequently used, and if not the bill is not paid in a timely manner, the amount may be added to a property tax bill. Conversely, bills may also be added directly to property tax bills.
He said it would cost about $1 million to repair all the damaged sidewalk flags in the city.
“Even with the resident being responsible for 100 percent, it would be like a revolving loan fund,” Drysdale said. “The city at most could be out about $700,000, what they had paid for it less what had been collected.”
Drysdale said if the city paid for 100 percent of the needed sidewalk repairs, it would cost $1.6 million over a 10-year period.
City Engineer Souheil Sabak of C.E. Raines said the slope component of sidewalk flags help determine the need for replacement. He said flags with a specified slope are replaced, while flags with minor dips or cracks are not.
Drysdale said the key component is the determination of what sidewalk flag conditions are hazardous. He said last summer the city launched an inspection program prior to the sale of a house, and he would recommend any other sidewalk inspection criteria to be consistent with the standards currently in use.
Sabak said the cost per flag replacement, estimated to be $150 each, is an average, and takes into account the added expense of tree root removal needed to repair some sidewalk flags.
He said the city would be responsible for the repair of sidewalks if utility access, like a manhole or shutoff valve, caused the damage.
“It all becomes a forensic assessment to them, per flag, per location, by thickness, by driveway and so forth,” Sabak said. “On the surface we try to simplify it for discussion purpose, but in the long run it is going to become a spread sheet that delineates what sidewalk, what defect, what thickness and so forth, and that becomes a systematic delineation of what you are doing.”
Drysdale said they hope to go out for bids on a section of the city at a time, and spread the sidewalk repairs out over several years. He said severely damaged flags would have to be repaired sooner, before that section of the city is scheduled, on a case-by-case basis, as determined by an inspection by the Department of Public Works or a C.E. Raines employee.
Drysdale said the city is fortunate that Fort Street’s sidewalks were repaired when the roadway was redone. He said Sibley Road and Civic Park Drive sidewalks, which are the city’s responsibility, are notably in need of repair.
He said he would have to look at the status of the sidewalk near Ferndale Cemetery on Sibley Road, since it is a county road.
Drysdale said he and his staff recommend that owners, whether residential or business, pay for sidewalk repairs. The city goes out for bid with contractors and gets a competitive price, front the money, pay the contractor, and then get reimbursed by the owner over four to five years.
Sabak said if an owner wanted an entire sidewalk, not just a few needed flags, replaced for aesthetic purposes, he recommends they be allowed to make their own contractual arrangements with the city’s contractor.
City Councilman Thomas Coffey said if owners use the a city contractor for repairs as opposed to one of their own choosing, they benefit from the city’s inspection of the work it contracted, and the influence of the city to help ensure satisfactory work.
“A homeowner is going to have somebody professional checking it, and looking out for their best interests,” Coffey said.
Drysdale said he hopes most residents will take advantage of the city’s contractor.
“I feel that most of these people are going to jump on the bid that we go out for,” Drysdale said. “The security that you are going to have, knowing the city’s inspected it and tested the concrete – it’s not just somebody who has an extra load left over.”
Drysdale said he proposes that every spring the DPW goes out and inspects the sidewalks, makes a list of ones that need to be replaced, and sends letters to homeowners, giving them 30 days to exercise their own options. The city would concurrently go out for bid to get a price per flag, and let the homeowner know the price.
Homeowners would have the option of contracting the repair on their own, or waiting for the work to be done by the city contractor.
Councilman James Trombley confirmed that homeowners seeking their own contractor would have to pull a permit, which would be an added expense.
Drysdale said if roots from a city tree on the median are causing sidewalk flags to tilt, a homeowner may seek the city’s permission to remove the tree. He said the city will not pay for the tree removal.
Sabak said the city would have a separate price with its contractors for root grinding when tree roots are tilting sidewalk flags.
Drysdale said ordinance changes needed to facilitate the sidewalk repair process may be brought to the Jan. 16 City Council meeting for a vote.