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Our View: Cost-sharing plan for sidewalks is the right idea

Compared to the thousands of dollars that some homeowners currently are paying for sidewalk repairs, a low-priced cost-certainty sounds like a bargain.

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Our View
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Anyone who works with concrete has likely heard the following expression: “There are two certainties with concrete. It will get hard, and it will crack.”

Plenty of homeowners in Rochester know this all too well. As the frost goes out each spring, they watch their sidewalks shift, rise, fall, buckle and crack – and they wait for the dreaded notice from the city that they are on the hook for thousands of dollars in sidewalk replacement costs.

It's a luck-of-the-draw problem. A single boulevard tree can wreak havoc on one homeowner's sidewalk while leaving the neighbors' panels untouched. A shoddy pour by a contractor or a bad cement mix can lead to big problems in just a few years. And, under the heading of “No good deed goes unpunished,” the homeowner who diligently salts an ice-prone sidewalk is likely hastening the arrival of a big repair bill.

Of course, these repairs are necessary. While car-pedestrian accidents get lots of headlines, national data shows that twice as many people are injured each year by tripping and falling on cracked sidewalks. A bad sidewalk is an accident waiting to happen.

For nearly a decade, the Rochester City Council has tried to come up with a long-term plan to keep sidewalks safe while limiting sticker-shock to individual homeowners. Up to now, that effort has failed.

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That failure, to a large degree, was due to the very inequities described above. When push came to shove, previous councils haven't had the courage to enact any plan that would spread the cost of sidewalk repair among virtually every Rochester resident, including those whose sidewalks currently are flawless and those who have no sidewalks at all.

In short, Rochester has let perfection be the enemy of the good. Lacking a plan that would please everyone and rankle no one, the council repeatedly has kicked this can down the sidewalk – er, road.

Now, however, our elected leaders seem poised to act. A proposal currently under consideration would divide Rochester into six districts, including a downtown district and five surrounding the city's core. Each year, Rochester Public Works would focus on one of those five residential districts, and the cost of all sidewalk repairs would be assessed equally on each homeowner for five years – at which point it would be that district's turn for more repairs.

Some districts that include a higher percentage of older neighborhoods would have greater needs than others, but ultimately, every Rochester homeowner – and renter, at least indirectly – would likely pay somewhere between $18 and $32 annually for sidewalk maintenance. Compared to the thousands of dollars that some homeowners currently are paying for sidewalk repairs, that kind of cost-certainty sounds like a bargain.

But what about the fairness issue? Should homeowners who have new, perfect sidewalks – or no sidewalks at all – be forced to help pay the bill for others, including those who have long neglected their sidewalks?

In a word, yes.

COVID protocols notwithstanding, we don't live our own separate bubbles. We visit friends in other parts of town. We walk our dogs. We push our kids in strollers. Sidewalks might be on private property, but they provide a public good from which we all benefit. Therefore, it's entirely appropriate that the cost of sidewalk repairs be borne by everyone, and it's time for our leaders to act.

Rochester Public Works is ironing out the details of a formal proposal, which should be presented to the council for an official vote later this summer. When that happens, we urge our leaders to take a firm stand in favor of full participation in this program.

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That means the council can't cave to that inevitable handful of homeowners who will push for an opt-out clause. It can't exempt new subdivisions where the sidewalks are perfect. We are in this for the long haul, and we'd argue that any perceived inequities in the proposed cost-sharing system will even out over time.

Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said for cracked sidewalks.

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