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Annapolis backs off from sidewalk fee

The Baltimore Sun

Members of the Annapolis city council are looking into repealing a little-known new law requiring all city residents to pay a sidewalk-repair fee after receiving an avalanche of criticism from people - including those without sidewalks - who just got their bills in the mail.

The $25 fee per household will allow the city to take over responsibility for maintaining the city's sidewalks. Property owners are supposed to repair and replace sidewalks at their own cost, said city spokesman Ray Weaver.

The bill to create the sidewalk fund passed 6-1 in October after being introduced in January 2007, but it garnered little discussion or attention at the time. Many residents learned of the fee only after receiving bills last week.

Alderman Fred Paone, a Ward 2 Republican who was voted onto the council after the bill's passage, said he received 80 complaint calls in two days last week.

"I was as surprised as my constituents," he said. "Most people are outraged. ... A number of people say they're going to refuse to pay it, form petition drives, take all kinds of measures."

More than two-thirds of his ward has no sidewalks, he said. The fee is "grossly unfair" for those residents, said Paone, who is working with Ward 6 Alderwoman Julie Stankivic, an independent, to repeal the law.

Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson, a Ward 4 Democrat, has started meeting with constituents to talk about the fee, and Alderwoman Classie Hoyle, a Ward 3 Democrat, plans to do the same

"I am recommending that we take this time to make sure that the public understands the fee, and listen to legitimate claims from those that believe they have a case for not paying," Finlayson said. "We also need to make sure that we have the mechanisms in place to respond when a citizen says their sidewalk is in need of repair."

Stanford Erickson lives in an Eastport community with no sidewalks and resents not being informed of the fee.

"It's not a lot of money," he said. "It's just the arrogance, the lack of concern to inform us."

There were public hearings for the new fee, as there are with any other bill, but Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said Thursday that wasn't enough.

"The city has a responsibility to inform citizens of fee increases," she said. "Quite frankly, we dropped the ball on this one."

Erickson's neighbor, Babe Feldman, says he supports the reasoning behind the law but wants to know more about how exactly the city will carry out its new duties.

In Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, property owners are responsible for sidewalks on their land. Baltimore County is the most aggressive in its enforcement, sending an employee to investigate a complaint of a broken sidewalk and ordering the property owner to repair it by a certain date. If the work isn't done, the county fixes the sidewalk and bills the property owner, said Tim Burgess, bureau chief of highways for Baltimore County.

Montgomery County is the rare exception, maintaining most sidewalks in residential areas, with the exception of private developments with homeowners associations, said spokesman Bonnie Ayres.

That responsibility creates a liability issue, said Stankivic, the only member of the city council to vote against the bill.

For example, someone could trip and fall and sue the city, said Bob McWilliams, who lives in Eastport.

He's furious about the new fee, which he said is subsidizing homeowners who don't bother to keep up their sidewalks.

"I had a couple of pieces of busted sidewalk in front of my house, and I got them repaired like a responsible homeowner," he said. "Now I get to pay through my taxes for somebody who is less responsible."

The fee will undergo review by the finance committee this summer. There is a possibility that homeowners with no sidewalks may have the fee waived, Weaver said.

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