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This spring, my wife and I will be replacing the sidewalk abutting our home on Henry Clay Street in Shelbyville. We were among the first 150 residents in a 22-square-block area to receive notice from the Codes Enforcement Office that a 16-year dormant ordinance requiring homeowners to pay for sidewalk repairs was being resurrected and enforced.
The letter directed us to start making arrangements within 30 days and complete the work within 60 days, or the city would make the repairs and file a lien against our home for the cost of the work, plus fees and penalties.
My first reaction (after my wife peeled me off the ceiling) was to question the legality of this ordinance. Through my research, I learned that scattered other cities around the country have adopted similar legislation, with varying levels of success. Some municipalities have been challenged successfully in court, while others have had similar ordinances sustained.
It’s anyone’s guess, but I suspect this mixed case law was a factor in the city’s decision to target a small group of property owners initially instead of coming after everyone at once. (In case you missed that, this ordinance will eventually affect almost all Shelbyville property owners. The first round of 150 homeowners is only the beginning.)
I attended a city council meeting shortly after receiving the notice and presented economic data showing that approximately 105 of the 150 households affected don’t have the cash necessary to make these repairs. (In fact, with the local unemployment rate hovering near 8%, 12 of those 150 households are trying to make ends meet on unemployment and food stamps.)
To top it off, housing values have dropped an average of 34% in the past five years, effectively eliminating many homeowners’ ability to even borrow money against their home to pay for sidewalk repairs.
My wife and I are voluntarily replacing the sidewalk in front of our home. However, I side with those residents who feel it’s wrong for the city to suddenly force current homeowners to bear this entire burden.
My biggest question to the city council then (and now) is, “Where has the enforcement of this ordinance been over the past 16 years?”
This abrupt, relentless focus came out of the blue like a very expensive game of musical chairs (or Russian Roulette). Everyone who sold his or her house and moved out of Shelbyville before the music stopped in 2010 got a free ride.
However, current residents are left holding the bill (or taking the bullet) for several thousand dollars to replace sidewalks that have been in a state of disrepair for decades.
Like most residents, I had no idea this ordinance existed. (I only hope there aren’t any other ordinances lurking out there that will hold me responsible for repairing the streets and sewers too!)
I personally feel the city was negligent failing to enforce this ordinance over the past 16 years and should assume at least partial responsibility for the costs of the repairs.
If the ordinance can’t be pro-rated or overturned entirely, then I would hope to at least see some consideration shown to new residents. (I’m aware of two homeowners who purchased property just months before this ordinance resurfaced, which is a pretty ugly way to welcome new neighbors into our city.)
I also cringe at the thought of our elderly residents living on a fixed income being forced to choose between paying their utility bills or repairing a sidewalk. Until recently, my next-door neighbor was a 94-year-old widow living alone on a fixed income.
She has since passed away, but to demand that someone like her divert several thousand dollars of her pension or Social Security to repair a sidewalk seems not only callous and insensitive but downright merciless.
This isn’t just an issue of paying for a sidewalk. It’s about our city officials blind-siding residents with a several-thousand-dollar tax assessment using a little-known ordinance that hasn’t been enforced in 16 years but is now being pursued with relentless tenacity.
Needless to say, I’m not at all happy with our representatives right now. (I’m feeling a lot of things right now, but “represented” isn’t on the list.)
However, I committed to replace the sidewalk in front of my home at my own expense, and I’ll keep my word. In the meantime, I’ll continue supporting those residents who want to challenge this ordinance, and you can bet I’ll make sure my voter’s registration is current.
Rich Lane lives on Henry Clay Street in Shelbyville.