Annapolis may curb disputed sidewalk fee

Residents question $25 bills for maintenance

July 11, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun reporter

Twenty-five dollars.

It's not even half a tank of gas, less than the cost of a ticket to Six Flags, maybe a dozen crabs.

But it's enough to drive Annapolis citizens to flood City Hall and city council representatives with furious calls and e-mails over the new fee to fund sidewalk maintenance and repairs - and enough to cause two aldermen to say they will introduce legislation Monday to suspend enforcement of the fee.

The bills, which charge owners of business properties $150, arrived in the mail last month with no warning, and in the Colonial city once frequented by George Washington, this is all but cause for rebellion.

"It's horrible management in disseminating the news," said Stanford Erickson, who lives in a community without sidewalks. "The $25 doesn't bother us, [but] why are they doing this now?"

The fund, whose creation was quietly approved in October, gives the city responsibility for taking care of the 120 miles of sidewalks in the state capital.

Property owners used to be required to maintain their sidewalks, whose repairs often cost thousands of dollars, but some let the sidewalks go untended and become unsafe, city officials said..

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer acknowledged that the city had "dropped the ball" by failing to warn of the impending bills. But she said the arrangement is good for property owners.

"We've relieved them of a lot of hassle," she said. "It seemed like a no-brainer."

The complaints go beyond the lack of notification. Some residents, like Erickson, have no sidewalks; others who do said they are taking care of their sidewalks, either through community association fees or with their own money.

Bob McWilliams said he has faithfully repaired any cracked or broken sidewalks in front of his house.

"Instead of enforcing personal responsibility, they shifted the responsibility to everybody," he said.

Others simply think the city is overstepping its bounds. Chris Keleher pointed to unkempt medians in roads around his home as evidence that the city "has an inability to maintain anything to a satisfactory level."

The fee puts the city in a minority in the region. In Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, property owners are responsible for sidewalks on their land.

Baltimore County is the most aggressive in its enforcement, sending an employee to investigate a complaint of a broken sidewalk and ordering the property owner to repair it by a certain date. If the work isn't done, the county fixes the sidewalk and bills the property owner.

Alderman Fred Paone, a Republican who said he received nearly 100 calls from constituents about the fee, says they're vowing to refuse to pay, form petition drives and "take all kinds of measures."

"I think my constituents have made their feelings quite clear," he said. "It's about 90 percent [against it]."

Paone, who was voted onto the council after the legislation was passed, and Alderwoman Julie Stankivic, a Republican who cast the lone vote against the measure, are working to repeal it - even after several thousand property owners have paid the fee.

After several ward meetings with angry residents, other aldermen are rethinking their stances.

Alderman Richard Israel, a Democrat who plans to introduce the bill to the city council Monday night, believes the fee could be unconstitutional because it was levied against all property owners, even those without sidewalks, and he said fees usually can be levied only when a service is directly being provided.

Alderman Sam Shropshire, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring Israel's legislation, said he would push to have implementation delayed until next year.

"People have raised some very legitimate questions that make me think that maybe this is not a good idea," he said. "Anyone who paid this fee already will probably get reimbursed. No one should pay this fee."

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