ORMEWOOD PARK — Taxpayers received something they don't often hear from Atlanta City Hall: an apology.
In a meeting of the South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development, Thursday night, Richard Mendoza, commissioner of the the Atlanta Department of Public Works, apologized to Ormewood Park residents who received letters in the last few weeks regarding the condition of the sidewalks on Delaware Avenue and other streets.
The letters, which he admitted are harsh in tone, told residents they were responsible for fixing their cracked or dilapidated sidewalks and driveway curb cuts.
But they caused a row in Ormewood Park, the first community to be hit with them, part of what public works officials say will be citywide crackdown on broken sidewalks.
While he apologized for the letters' tone, Mendoza, the former assistant director of public works for San Antonio, Texas, reiterated that the city ordinance — Sec. 138-14. (d) — that deals with the maintenance of sidewalk area, places the responsibility of fixing them on homeowners.
If they don't fix them, the city will and then bill the homeowner.
Several homeowners questioned the legality of the ordinance and whether or not the language in it is explicit enough.
The code is worded: 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.
But when some residents pointed out their sidewalks were in the right-of-way, and not abutting it, Mendoza still said it was the responsibility of the property owner.
The issue has put into focus a longstanding problem in the city: The state of some sidewalks is deplorable.
Indeed, Mendoza said that roughly half of the Atlanta 2,500 miles of sidewalks are in need of some kind of repair.
"We don't want our sidewalks to be minefields," he said.
The push on Ormewood Park and the other parts of the city to follow, comes as the city seeks to shore itself from the kind of lawsuits taxpayers had to pay.
Last year, the city paid a blind East Lake man $3 million to settle a lawsuit he filed after he fell and injured himself so badly that he will need long-term care.
Even though the city ordinance says property owners are responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks, it was liable because he informed the city of the problem for years but officials failed to act.
So the crackdown now, Mendoza said, is "going to address the more glaring repairs that are needed to reduce the city's liabilty."
Several meeting attendees questioned how the city can ask Ormewood Park property owners to suddenly be subject to the enforcement of the ordinance, when other streets in the city such as Glenwood Avenue have had their sidewalks repaired by the taxpayers at large.
"So we're paying too improve the sidewalks on Glenwood and to improve our own sidewalks," asked Bob Titus, who is the chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit-W's Transportation Committee.
"How can the city assume liabilty in some cases and deny it in others?"
What's more, they noted that major thoroughfares, Moreland Avenue, for one, are virtual obstacle courses for pedestrians, so why do they remain it terrible condition.
Mendoza, who had several members of his staff with him, said the city is ultimately liable for all sidewalks as was the case in the East Lake lawsuit and that all of Atlanta is being reviewed for repairs.