Ballot question would require Denver property owners to pay fees by the foot to fund sidewalks
Denver voters will have the opportunity to address the city’s patchwork of too-narrow, uneven, cracked or, in some places, nonexistent sidewalks come November so long as they’re on board with passing a new property tax.
The Denver Deserves Sidewalks initiative has been certified for the ballot, the Denver Elections Division announced on Twitter Tuesday.
The measure would replace Denver’s exiting system where property owners are on the hook for the cost of repairing, replacing and installing sidewalks along their properties with a pay-by-the-foot annual fee system. The responsibility of repairing and maintaining sidewalks would be transferred to the city should the measure pass.
“It’s a truly comprehensive solution,” Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, said. “Whether you don’t a have sidewalk at all, your sidewalk is too skinny or your sidewalk is in disrepair, it would address all three of those issues.”
As laid out in the ballot language filed with the city’s election office, the fees would vary based on what kind of streets a property is next to.
For homeowners who live along a local street or residential collector, the fee would be $2.15 per foot. If a property is 50 feet long, that adds up to $107.50 per year. For properties along arterial streets downtown, where sidewalks would have to be wider, the cost per foot would be $4.30 or $215 a year for a property with 50 feet of sidewalk frontage.
The fees would be adjusted every five years based on changes to the consumer price index. Cost would be discounted by 20% for people living in neighborhoods the city has deemed vulnerable to gentrification and displacement.
The city has been grappling with its sidewalk network for years. That included launching a neighborhood-by-neighborhood inspection and repair program in the summer of 2018. In its first 16 months, the program’s lone inspector looked at more than 1,100 properties all in the same neighborhood. That work was suspended amid the pandemic-spurred recession in 2020, the city’s website says.
Locantore and a network of supporters for the sidewalk fee are tired of waiting.
“We started our Denver Deserves Sidewalks campaign back in 2015 and the ask has been consistent: Fund the construction and repairs of the sidewalks citywide,” she said. “We have been very patient waiting for the mayor or the city council to take substantive action and it just hasn’t been forthcoming.”
Now it’s time for the voters to decide.
Asking for what is essentially a property tax increase after a year of record inflation could be a tougher sell than in prior years when city voters have been supportive of tax measures to cover pressing needs.
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has been critical of the accumulation of new fees and taxes falling to city residents when city leaders could prioritize those things through general fund spending.
“I’m not supporting that,” he said of the sidewalk measure. He’s opposed to anything that would have made his late mother-in-law adjust her budget while she was living on a fixed income.
“People have to start looking out for the little guy and the senior citizens,” said Webb, who led the city from 1991 to 2003.
Supporters of the measure counter that the current system leaves property owners exposed to the full cost of sidewalk repairs or installation in many cases. City data in 2020 showed that in roughly one in five cases of a sidewalk repair, the bill exceeded $1,000.
Financial assistance is available to low-income households. The city also has gobs of bond money dedicated to installing new sidewalks around town and closing gaps including $47.7 million from the record-setting bond package voters approved in 2017.
The city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure this summer started incorporating sidewalk repair into this annual concrete maintenance program around the city, spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said. The department has a $1.2 million budget to dedicate to that work this year.
For Locantore, it’s all too little, too slow when it comes to building out a key component of infrastructure that can benefit the entire city by making it easier for people to get out of their cars in favor of other modes of transportation. The ballot measure would direct the city to complete a sidewalk master plan. Locantore estimated that with the fee revenue, that network could be completed in nine years.
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