West Avenue patchwork

Finding a better way for Jenkintown to pay for better sidewalks

What brings more value ALL of Jenkintown? A well-built pedestrian infrastructure for all the Borough or a pocket park on Cedar?

Like it or not, I probably know more about sidewalks and pedestrian policy than at least 95% of the population. That and a couple of bucks will get me a cup of coffee at Velvet Sky, I know. Yet, we continue exploring this issue because we believe in its importance and the value it can provide for our community. We want walkable communities not just because we here in Jenkintown think they look nice, but because they help foster a better, more sustainable lifestyle.

The arguments so far presented to counter the idea that community assets require community responsibility include cost, liability, snow removal, and aesthetic preferences.

Liability: Most communities impose rules upon homeowners for keeping their sidewalks cleared, including ours. That doesn’t need to change. In my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, the city will issue citations to homeowners and businesses that do not properly clear their publicly owned sidewalks. Your homeowners will cover you either way unless a citation was issued. Yes, in theory, the city would be held liable for damages that occurred on damaged sidewalks, but as homeowner, we would pay either way — either through our insurance or through Borough insurance via our taxes. As a single-payer insurance plan, it would come at a much lower cost.

Snow removal: Similarly, the Borough would not necessarily be required to clear the snow like they do the road, although some cities in more northern latitudes do. On the other hand, Jenkintown will clear the leaves from your yard, so I don’t know how they could object to clearing the snow from their sidewalks. What’s the difference?

Aesthetics: A uniform block-long sidewalk would just look better and last longer. Any claims, as some have made, that individual homeowners would want to apply their own preferences to their frontage seems specious to us. However, we can imagine a system where that the Borough might allow for that after assessing a special fee.

But how do we pay for it? As it happens, this particular cat could be skinned in a number of ways.

  1. Direct tax: We’ve estimated that incorporating this responsibility into the Borough’s budget might add, at most, five percent to the budget assuming it changes nothing else. We have argued that perhaps the Borough reassess some of its priorities in light of this. What is more important to you, for instance? Subsidies to local businesses or a better high-quality pedestrian infrasture? A $250,000 pocket park, or the sidewalks of an entire block? The Borough already outlays several hundred thousands of dollars per year supporting its parking fund, which amounts to a gift to downtown retail, while at the same time it levies taxes and fees.
  2. Transfer fee: Assuming that the average cost to rebuild the curb and sidewalk per property amounts to about $8,000, why not roll that into the mortgage? The money goes into a pedestrian infrastructure fund that at least eliminates the sudden nature of the Borough’s sidewalk inspection and insulates homeowners from any hardship that repairs might incur.
  3. Yearly assessment, or what we’ll call the Ithaca plan: In Ithaca, New York, homeowners receive a sidewalk bill of about $45 per year, less than what we pay for trash pickup. The money goes into a fund dedicated to sidewalk repair, so again, no sudden hardships.
  4. The private solution: Over the past several months, we’ve explored the idea of incorporating a company that would insure your sidewalk — much in the same way Aqua provides insurance to repair the water line that runs under your property. How much would you pay? Would you be interested?

We understand that the Borough’s paving program instigated a relatively rare mass-inspection of the walks and curbs, but that also spotlighted the fatal flaws in our current system.

The idea of having a multitude of itinerant contractors suddenly invade our community to service homeowners facing serious deadlines, applying patchwork fixes to our otherwise charming streetscape at wildly divergent prices benefits no one, least of all the hapless homeowner who planned instead to spend that $5,000 on a new furnace or some other much-needed home improvement. This past experience just showed how onerous and harmful the current sidewalk ordinance is.

Can we please find a better way?

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