SCHENECTADY — The City Council has narrowly approved a pilot sidewalk replacement program.
But the plan to allow neighborhoods to form special assessment districts to repair sidewalks remains controversial among residents and neighborhood associations that contend the effort is opaque and more details are needed.
Nearly a dozen residents spoke out ahead of the vote, which passed 4-3 on Monday.
Schenectady United Neighborhoods President Laurie Bacheldor raised questions about the timeline for implementation, future maintenance, code enforcement, the relationship with paving schedules and other issues in a lengthy letter to city officials dated March 9.
“Any plan comes down to the details,” she said.
City Council President Ed Kosiur and council members John Mootooveren, John Polimeni and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas voted to approve the new program, contending the effort is the first step in tackling a long-neglected issue.
“I think this is a good starting point for us as a city,” said Zalewski-Wildzunas. “As we grow and develop the program, I believe that we can address any of the concerns on a case-by-case basis.”
Polimeni, who came up with the concept, said the City Council has been discussing sidewalk solutions for years without success.
“During this two-year period, there’s been absolutely no alternatives presented,” Polimeni said. “Certainly we’ll reach out to the [neighborhood associations] as we’d like to try to work with them and to answer their questions.”
The program allows neighborhoods to create sidewalk improvement districts if 75 percent of property owners sign petitions in favor.
The city would oversee replacement of the sidewalks, borrowing the money and front the cost of repairs.
Residents would have the option to repay the cost of the improvements in full, or in payments that would be added to their tax bills over a designated pay period.
Council members Marion Porterfield, Leesa Perazzo and Vince Riggi voted against the plan.
Perazzo said she was troubled by the lack of clarity on how projects would be prioritized, among other items, and said a more concrete blueprint is needed, particularly because legislative bodies change over time.
“We should be pausing as public servants to make sure we have best legislation that we can possibly put forward,” she said.
Riggi referred to the program as “tax a la carte” — a way for city officials to distance themselves from tax increases — and questioned the program’s relevance if sidewalks remained uncleared during the winter.
“We could have brand new sidewalks made of diamond dust,” Riggi said. “They could be beautiful. They could have pearls on them and everything. But if they’re not clear, people cannot walk on them — it’s as simple as that.”
City code requires property owners to maintain their sidewalks, but many fail to have them repaired because of the cost or because they aren't aware it is their responsibility.
Council members agreed to include $1 million in this year’s capital budget for the pilot program, with the money spent as neighborhood groups petition the city.
Two neighborhoods have already submitted petitions: Raymond Street and one block of McClellan Street between The Plaza and Rugby Road.
But the process must be repeated in order to verify resident interest.
City officials acknowledged there’s not a one-stop shop for facilitating the process, and at least four departments are involved in shepherding the program through to completion.
Applications are available at the city clerk’s office. Once neighborhoods gather signatures, applications are required to pass through the legislative process for approval by the City Council, which must accept and authorize the assessment.
The city assessor’s office is required to calculate the cost for each property, while city engineering will facilitate the actual construction process.
City Engineer Chris Wallin expects groundbreaking by mid-July at the earliest for the two pilot projects.
Those contracts will be bid separately, he said, and homeowners will ultimately be responsible for their future upkeep.
“Now that [homeowners] are paying, we want them to have the highest quality product,” Wallin said.
Polimeni said the process would be “relatively easy” despite the numerous city agencies involved.
“It’s not your typical runaround sometimes you get,” Polimeni said in a phone interview.
Robert Harvey, president of the Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association, questioned the impact on low-income renters and the disabled.
“You need to flesh it out more,” Harvey told lawmakers.
Porterfield said she continues to harbor concerns over landlords passing those costs onto their tenants.
“For some people, $5 is the difference between getting diapers and getting milk,” she said.
She called for looking at securing Community Development Block Grants to aid in costs.
Perazzo estimated the $1 million previously authorized by lawmakers would tackle four miles of sidewalks, just a fraction of the hundreds of miles within the city.
Polimeni countered the initial cost estimates are on the conservative side, and will likely be lower.
Homeowners are free to coordinate efforts themselves with the proper permit, he said, but those participating in the program will benefit from economies of scale.
Mayor Gary McCarthy acknowledged the outstanding questions, but said it was impossible to address every hypothetical scenario.
“It’s an option, and I think we should approach it that way so that we can learn from it and go forward and try and improve some of the neighborhoods,” McCarthy said.
Wrinkles will ultimately be ironed out as more neighborhoods sign up for the program, he said, details of which will be made available on the city’s website.
Kosiur acknowledged the city needs to better promote and explain the effort.
“Well over 90 percent of those questions were already answered in our committee meetings,” he said. “I truly believe we’re just not doing a good enough job to get that information out there."
SUN will discuss the program at their meeting March 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Emanuel Friedens Church on Nott Terrace. Numerous city officials have been invited to the event, which is open to the public.
Residents are also questioning how the new sidewalk program relates to paving schedules, noting the deteriorating street conditions in several neighborhoods — including Decamp Avenue, where David Bacheldor invited city officials to visit.
“Don’t go too fast because you’re liable to knock the suspension out,” he said.
Laurie Bacheldor called conditions on the street a “disaster” and said she has been asking the city for a paving schedule for three years.
“Please keep the two issues together,” she said.
Porterfield and Zalewski-Wildzunas and Riggi agreed coordination is critical.
"Before, when streets were paved, people got sidewalks and curbs,” Riggi said.
Polimeni said officials will ideally match paving and sidewalk replacement schedules “as close as possible.”
Wallin, the city engineer, said the synchronization largely depends on if the sidewalk curb is integrated with the pavement.
“It’s not necessary we pave the roads when we do the sidewalks,” said Wallin of the upcoming projects on McClellan Street and Raymond Avenue.
But future projects may require roadwork.
“We’ll evaluate the project and see if it needs to be a larger project,” he said.
Taxpayers won’t pay additional costs if that’s the case, he said.