Bexley moving toward assessing homeowners for sidewalk repairs

The majority of Bexley City Council members are ready to take a step back and return to the practice of assessing homeowners for sidewalk repairs, rather than having the city pick up the cost.

"Our sidewalks are in deplorable condition, and we’re never going to have enough money in the (street levy) fund to keep up," commented Council President Matt Lampke, echoing the views of his colleagues at an April 2 service committee meeting.

Paying for sidewalk repairs has put work on the streets behind schedule, noted Councilman Rick Weber, chairman of the service committee, who called the meeting to revisit the issue.

"I’m personally embarrassed by the condition of our streets," Weber said.

Six council members said they were in favor of going back to assessing homeowners, a policy dating from 1948 that was changed in 2004.

"It’s all coming from somebody’s pocket," Councilman Mark Masser said. "It’s time to face the piper."

Councilman Jed Morison said he was willing to consider it, but wanted to receive a legal opinion from City Attorney Lou Chodosh before making a decision.

The other representatives said their final decision would depend on Chodosh’s advice, as well.

The issue arose following the passage of a continuing levy in 2002 that earmarked funds for "streets, alleys, curbs, sidewalks and similar repairs."

After its approval, a group of residents argued that designating part of the funds for sidewalks meant that the city could no longer assess homeowners for these repairs.

Nancy Duffy, who led the effort to end assessments and attended the April 2 meeting with three other supporters, called it "double-taxation" to revert to the policy.

She also read that the Ohio Constitution states that "every law imposing a tax shall state, distinctly, the object of the same, to which only it shall be applied."

Duffy maintains that municipalities can only tax for things allowed by state law and, except for townships, this does not include sidewalks.

"Local governments have no authority to change tax law in the state of Ohio," Duffy argued.

At the time assessments first became an issue, city officials explained that sidewalks were included in the ballot wording to allow some of the funds to be used for mandated handicap ramps.

While maintaining their legal right to continue the assessments, council members were swayed by the public outcry to end the policy.

That was when the city’s general fund was flush with an estate tax windfall, pointed out Councilman Jeff McClelland, who had chaired the street levy campaign.

Financially, the budget is tighter now, and spending part of the $850,000 generated by the levy on sidewalks has put the street repairs behind, representatives said.

The campaign stated clearly that the money was needed for streets, McClelland said. "There was no intention to lead people to believe that the money would be used for sidewalks."

But that was how it was perceived, contended resident Joyce Katz, and the continuing levy might not have passed without having sidewalks in the ballot language.

Continuing assessments "is like gotcha and gotcha again," Katz said.

Chodosh said he was "90 percent" comfortable that the city could use other funds for sidewalks in addition to the street levy.

And after listening to Duffy’s arguments, he said that he was moving to "100 percent" certainty, although he wanted time to study the issue.

Bexley resident and former City Council member John Rohyans offered that he was fairly certain that the previous city attorney, James Gross, had ruled that the city could use other sources for funding sidewalk repairs.

Chodosh promised a legal interpretation by the next service committee meeting.

If an ordinance changing the policy passes, the next challenge will be to determine a procedure for inspecting and repairing sidewalks, Weber said.

The city had been in the practice of inspecting one area of Bexley every year and marking blocks deemed in need of repair or replacement with an "X."

Homeowners had the option of making the repairs themselves or allowing a city-hired contractor to do with work, for which they would be billed. If the bill was not paid, the amount would be added to the owner’s tax bill.

When the homeowners’ assessments were ceased, the city only repaired sidewalks on a street that was being resurfaced or when there was a complaint from a resident or a safety concern.

If the policy is changed, more sidewalks might be fixed but something else will be broken, Katz cautioned.

"In the future, people will have a lot less trust" in Bexley’s government, Katz said. "I won’t say you betrayed our trust, but that’s what it feels like."

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