Foss: Schenectady’s new sidewalk program a disappointment

Sidewalks at the corner of Ardsley and Rugby roads in Schenectady are pictured on Thursday.
Sidewalks at the corner of Ardsley and Rugby roads in Schenectady are pictured on Thursday.

If you recall, the city of Schenectady’s sidewalk replacement program was controversial from the get-go. 

Critics criticized the initiative’s lack of transparency and details, and called for more clarity as to how the program would actually work. 

“We should be pausing as public servants to make sure we have the best legislation we can possibly put forward,” council member Leesa Perazzo said, before voting against the program back in March.  

Her comments might have fallen on deaf ears, but that didn’t make them any less right.

Turns out, the sidewalk replacement program is exactly what its critics claimed — an ill-conceived “solution” that will do little to address the poor quality of Schenectady’s sidewalks and risks further eroding residents’ trust in government. 

It is a huge failure — and you can’t say nobody saw it coming. 

In Schenectady, property owners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalks in front of their homes, which at least partly explains why so many of the city’s sidewalks are in such lousy shape. 

The sidewalk program enables neighborhoods to form special-assessment districts and get their sidewalks replaced. The city fronts the costs, oversees the work and bills residents later. 

When this program was implemented, I had two concerns. 

I felt it hit residents whose taxes are already too high with a new fee for something that should really be a city service. (I’m not expected to maintain the sidewalk in front of my house in Albany, for what it’s worth.) And I believed participation would be limited to neighborhoods where residents are fairly well off, thus doing little to address a citywide problem. 

What I didn’t anticipate was how poorly executed the program would be. 

The first group of residents to participate, on Ardsley Road, were hit with bills much bigger than expected — $5,051 for a 50-foot stretch of sidewalk, rather than the $2,700 estimate initially presented by the city. 

Now, those of us who have dealt with contractors understand that an estimate is just an estimate, and that costs can always go up. We also know a good contractor provides regular updates on their work, while a bad contractor disappears for long lengths of time and charges more than expected.  

Unfortunately, the city has behaved more like a bad contractor than a good contractor. 

Residents weren’t informed that costs had risen so dramatically — over 80 percent — or given a chance to decide whether they still wanted the work done.

This lack of communication is as appalling as it is inexplicable. 

Is there any reason the city couldn’t have done a better job of keeping residents in the loop and making sure they knew what they were getting into? None that I can see. The failure to do so smacks of pure incompetence — the kind of thing you expect from a shady used car salesman, not a municipal government working on behalf of the public. 

Program architect John Polimeni has acknowledged that the bills received by homeowners were excessive and has said that they will get new bills. He also said that city staff is going through a “learning curve,” and that “we’ll get it figured out.” 

That’s good to hear, but I do wonder how many neighborhoods will be willing to participate in the program in the future. 

In the meantime, the city should bill the Ardsley Road residents what they were told they would be billed for their sidewalk replacement. Perhaps there’s some money in the city’s Smart Cities fund that can pay for the overage. 

I’d also suggest the City Council apply the brakes the next time they’re tempted to rush a badly-planned program into existence. And should residents raise questions, the Council would do well to listen to them, and try to address their concerns. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s .

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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