ORMEWOOD PARK — Following a 2012 complaint of a disabled man who reported difficulty in traversing parts of Delaware Avenue in his wheelchair, the Department of Public Works sent 26 certified letters to homeowners that order them to repair cracked sidewalks and driveways.
If they don't repair the sidewalks and driveway curb cuts that are uneven, cracked or broken, the city will fix them, and then charge the homeowner.
It's the first step in a larger crackdown that public works officials plan for the entire city.
The move has renewed a longstanding debate over just whose responsibility it is to pay for sidewalk repairs: Public works officials say it rests squarely with the property owner. But homeowners and at least one pedestrian safety advocacy group says its a shared responsibility, therefore the city should pay.
Some city leaders say they agree it's the local government's job to pay. But they add there's no money to pay to repair a backlog of broken sidewalks with a total price tag of $150 million according to one estimate and $250 million based on another.
At the center of it all are homeowners like Lee Jessen of Ormewood Park who received one of the certified letters.
"I'm not anti-City of Atlanta and I believe in maintaining sidewalks, but it was a shock to suddenly have a large expense due within the next month," Jessen told East Atlanta Patch.
The letter she received said she'd have to pay $846 for the sidewalk and $1,600 for the driveway. By her estimation, that's about $3.90 per square foot for the sidewalk and $5.24 per square foot for the driveway.
While she and the other property owners have 45 days to complete all work, they only have 15 days from the date of the letter to inform the city if they agree with the public works department's estimate and let it hire the contractor or find their own.
In Jessen's case, she has to let the city know by Feb. 15.
"I believe these improvements will improve curb appeal, but I'm confused and shocked at the way this information is being communicated and the lack of city support," Jessen said, adding such repairs might be tax deductable.
"I am sad that my city chooses to pay for stadiums over sidewalks," she continued, referring to a proposed bond issuance that could have Atlanta taxpayers on the hook to guarantee up to up to $300 million to pay for a $1 billion new stadium Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants built.
The Atlanta Public Works Department says its sidewalk maintenance team will meet with affected homeowners to answer questions, though a date has not yet been set.
Who Foots Sidewalk Bill?
Public Works officials say the Atlanta city code is explicit: Property owners must pay for sidewalk repairs:
Sec. 138-14. - Maintenance of sidewalk area.
(d) Damaged sidewalk abutting the right-of-way. When the sidewalk abutting the right-of-way is damaged, it is the obligation of the abutting property owner to repair such sidewalk upon notice from the department of public works. If after receiving such notice, the abutting property owner fails to repair the sidewalk within a reasonable time, the department of public works is authorized to make such repairs and assess the abutting property owner for costs incurred.
“Per the City Code, sidewalk repair is the responsibility of the abutting property owner,” Valerie Bell-Smith, the public works department’s spokeswoman told Patch.
“If the city does the work, it is being done to address a safety hazard and the property owner is subject to receive an invoice for the work done.”
Residents do have the right to appeal the department's findings, she said.
While the crackdown is on Delaware Avenue and residents on adjoining streets will receive similar notices in coming weeks, Bell-Smith said the department is reviewing sidewalks all over the city.
Among other streets in focus in the city are commercial portions of Howell Mill Road in Home Park, she said.
"We started this off in Ormewood Park because that was one of the biggest ones," Bell-Smith said.
The trigger for that was twofold — Delaware Avenue was resurfaced last year. As a result, the curbs at intersections had to be in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA mandates accessibility for those with physical handicaps.
But the curb cuts, which cost $140,000, were something of a half-win. While the curb cuts at the crosswalks made Delaware compliant, the sidewalks themselves weren't.
That led to Ormewood Park resident Ben Leak reaching out to 11 Alive news to share his frustrations.
"He contacted the news media and that put the city on notice that there were sidewalks in disrepair," Bell-Smith said.
"It's really to people's benefit to make sure that the sidewalks are up to code in front of their homes."
But who should pay for it is the question.
In some cases, it seems the city has paid for sidewalk repairs.
“Several sidewalks on our street have already been repaired by the city,” said Rebecca Landel-Hernandez, another Ormewood Park resident who received one of the letters.
"At least one I know of where the owner was not charged. This seems to be highly prejudicial. There are some people who have very good sidewalks which have obviously been done by the homeowners and yet they are being assessed for a new sidewalk."
Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, whose District 1 includes Ormewood Park, has fielded numerous calls in the wake of the letters.
Smith, who formed a sidewalk task force with District 5 Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong last year to look at the repair issues and come up with solutions, said in a perfect world, the city would pay for the sidewalk repairs.
The city doesn't have the money to pay for it and changing the legislation to put the onus on the municipal government won't help either, she said.
"If we were to change the legislation, that would mean immediately, the city would have to go out and fix the sidewalks," Smith said. "There's no easy solution."
Indeed, the city's streetscape is a mishmash of sorts that reflect different styles and annexations over the years. Some neighborhoods have poured concrete, others bricks and still others hexagonal pavers.
And of course, there are parts of some neighborhoods, such as Lake Claire, that don't have sidewalks at all.
"The city inherited whatever was there," Smith said, adding she's been pushing for public works officials to meet with affected residents.
"I think that is a really bad way for paying for sidewalk repairs," Flocks said. "The city needs to come up with a system that's more fair."
The city streets are maintained by the municipal government, so the sidewalks should be, too, she said.
"The property owners are not responsible to pay for potholes," said Flocks, who also is a member of the task force Smith and Archibong formed. "For pedestrians, the sidewalks are the road, they are their network."
Do It Yourself?
The city did have Quality of Life bonds that were used to tackle the backlog of needed infrastructure improvements.
But that ended last year.
Hall, whose district includes Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park, pushed legislation in 2011 that created a Sidewalk Trust Fund.
The idea is when the city makes repairs to sidewalks on private property, the money goes into the "lock-box" that is the trust fund.
The goal was that over time, the trust fund would generate enough funding that could be directed to additional sidewalk improvements. But it wasn't intended to fully fund all sidewalk improvements.
"We don’t have all this extra cash from the property taxes," Hall said, adding some 22 cents of every dollar generated from property taxes goes to the city, the smallest share of a three-sliced pie. The bulk of tax money goes to the Atlanta Public Schools and then the county.
"It's not like there's a whole lot of extra money," Hall said. "The way to solve the problem is to look at creating another quality of life bond issuance."
Meanwhile, different areas of the city have tried to get other sources of funding or just do it themselves.
The Boulevard corridor, which runs through Old Fourth Ward, secured $1.25 million from the Atlanta Regional Commission to pay for a sidewalk improvement project that begins this year.
Midtown and Downtown created their own commercial tax improvement districts in their business corridors to pay for sidewalks that needed repair.
Even residential neighborhoods are looking to address their issues directly.
"We are investigating funding repairs of sidewalks along our main thoroughfares, Oakdale and McClendon, because we think it’s potentially a good use of our resources given that the city won’t invest in them," said Steve Cardwell, president of the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization.
"The future of our sidewalks will be something that we work define as part of our master planning exercise."
Some Ormewood Park residents who received the letters are considering whether or not to do the same and hire a single contractor to do the repairs on Delaware.
Archibong, whose district includes Lake Claire, Kirkwood and East Atlanta, said she hopes the task force will come up with a list of best practices culled from around the country that might work here.
Smith said one promising solution is installing rubber sidewalks to address problems of shifting streets and pathways caused by tree roots.
The city of Santa Monica, Calif. was among the first municipalities in the United States to use them.
The task force also will look at the city's own processes to see how much of the municipal red tape can be streamlined.
"My personal position is the city needs to find the money to do it," Archibong said. "Finding the money is going to be the 5,000 pound gorilla in the room."
Until then, she said she's afraid the city, and ultimately, the taxpayers, will be at risk for personal injury lawsuits.
Last year, Alex Jenkins, who is blind, obtained a $3 million settlement with the city following injuries he suffered in 2008 when he fell over pieces of broken sidewalk in front of his East Lake home.
Jenkins had complained to city officials for years about the problem, including to Archibong, his councilwoman, who, in turn, pushed the public works department to fix it.
But the repairs weren't made until after Jenkins was injured and sued the city.
"We paid $3 million," Archibong said, "for something that would have cost $2,000 or $3,000 to fix."