Walk on by 

The problem with paying for sidewalks

The thing about the sidewalk in front of my house is that I hate any person who appears there. My desk is at the window, so I spend hours a day judging strangers. They are a despicable lot, wearing dumb clothes, pausing to let their dogs relieve themselves and sometimes, awfully, looking at me. Each of them appears in my life as an intruder. I live here, whereas they are passing by. Call it the Problem of Others: there are so many of them, and yet they are all alike.

The Missoula City Council has been a testament to this phenomenon lately, as they consider ways to address what Councilman Bob Jaffe called the "hundred-year-old problem" of owners having to pay for sidewalks in front of their properties. Those sidewalks belong to the city, but Missoula law requires owners to pay for their installation and repair. The median cost to pour a sidewalk in this town is $3,500—more for corner lots, and much more for complicated jobs. (The Indy's Matthew Frank has reported bills of almost $11,000.)

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Early this summer, a plan to distribute these costs smacked headlong into the problem of others. The city proposed to fund sidewalks via a two-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, which county officials refused to even put on the ballot. Missoula county supervisors didn't feel their constituents should pay for the sidewalks of Missoula city residents, even though 60 percent of them are the same people. Why should the other 40 percent pay for sidewalks where they don't even live?

It was a petty argument, but paying for sidewalks with a gas tax was a terrible idea for another reason. It would have lessened the financial burden on people who own homes by shifting it to people who merely drive cars. It would have made life easier on those who are financially strong and harder on those who are financially weak. When you think about it that way, the gas tax was a heartless move.

But nobody thought about it that way until it was too late—probably because two kinds of people generally go to city council meetings: reporters and property owners. As a renter, I stay home and tend my undisclosed pets. I ignore local politics until someone tries to raise my taxes, at which point I go insane. Why should I pay for the sidewalk in front of my landlord's house?

So it was back to the drawing board for council, which has since heard two new proposals to defray sidewalk costs. One would have property owners pay a $500 deductible toward installation and repair expenses, after which the city would assume 70 percent of the cost to $3,500 and all the rest after. The second has the city pay the first $500, with the owner assuming any remaining cost to $3,500, after which the city pays the rest. In either case, the money the city pays for sidewalks would come from a fee charged to owners based on assessed property values, which would not technically be a property tax.

Both plans seem reasonable. Everyone uses the sidewalk, after all—why should a homeowner have to pay just because it runs in front of his house? The argument gets stronger when you consider what a small fee we're talking about. Missoula Public Works Director Steve King estimates the annual cost to the owner of a $250,000 home at between $8 and $10. That seems a fair price to pay for insurance against a $10,000 sidewalk bill.

But even this plan has its detractors. Owners who paid the whole cost of their sidewalk improvements in recent years are understandably disgruntled at the prospect of subsidizing their neighbors, even if it would only cost 10 bucks. It's the principle of the thing—why should somebody else get a city-discounted sidewalk when they had to eat the whole meal? Some have proposed making the sidewalk fund pay for improvements that took place in the last three or even 10 years. But that could make some new homeowners liable for money spent before they even moved to Missoula—and so on and so forth, until it seems Council can do nothing for one constituency that does not somehow hose another.

It is a vexing political conundrum. At the risk of blowing your mind, it's almost as if the sidewalk were the interface between our private and public lives. And it's almost like whoever appears on that sidewalk is a fun, dependable citizen of Missoula or a useless derelict, depending on whether you're inside the house.

I am retaining the moral high ground on this issue by not going to city council meetings. Those things are for other people. I stay here in my house, where I can safely monitor those who walk by. I feel a wary obligation to watch out for them in the other sense, but mostly I am suspicious. They are not me. Out there on the mean sidewalks of Missoula, it's their mothers' backs, not mine.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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