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City poised to act on sidewalk fee

The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and the City Council should pass emergency legislation to rescind the new sidewalk maintenance fee and give refunds to the thousands of residents who have already paid it, Timothy E. Elliott, the city's finance director, said.

Already, the city has received 4,561 payments totaling $162,275, Elliott told the council Monday night.

The council is poised to take action on the much-disputed fee at next Monday's meeting, after the state attorney general's office weighed in last week, calling the fee a tax and saying it was unlawfully levied.

Moyer said she would meet with city attorney Shaem C. Spencer and aldermen later this week to discuss options for new sidewalk fee legislation. She said that even if the fee is rescinded and residents are reimbursed, the city still has to deal with the issue of broken, cracked sidewalks in dire need of fixing.

Alderwoman Julie M. Stankivic and Alderman Frederick M. Paone introduced a measure at the July 14 council meeting to eliminate the fee, while Aldermen Richard E. Israel and Samuel E. Shropshire introduced legislation to suspend its collection until 2010 to further study the issue and refund those who have already paid the fee.

The council passed the ordinance levying the sidewalk fee in October, calling for homeowners to pay $25 a year and owners of commercial and nonresidential properties to pay $150 into a new fund that the city would draw from to pay for sidewalk repairs and construction. Previously, property owners were responsible for maintaining their own sidewalks.

When many of the city's residents received bills in the mail last month - without notice - it kicked off a hailstorm of criticism of city government. Hundreds complained that they weren't warned in advance of the new fee, they didn't have sidewalks, or that their homeowner's association fees already covered sidewalk maintenance.

Among the financing possibilities for sidewalk maintenance discussed at the meeting were: using the highway user fee from the gas tax; writing legislation for a capital improvement plan; floating bonds and rearranging the current city budget.

Paone questioned why more emphasis was not placed on policing sidewalk maintenance all along.

"I grew up on Southgate Avenue, and we fixed the sidewalk when it needed to be fixed," Paone said. "When you buy a million-dollar house, for goodness' sake ... These people don't come to us to fix their gutters."

Israel said he doesn't think the sidewalk fee should be repealed outright but that it should be rescinded retroactively.

"I want a timeout," Israel said. "I want to rescind the fee and I want a timeout to look at all the issues that I think we should have looked at in the first place."

He also said the city should consider levying a fee on visitors to pay for sidewalk repairs.

"I think we should be thinking about going to the General Assembly to get some power to be taxing the visitors who come here and walk on our sidewalks," Israel said. "The state gets most of the benefit of the visitors being here in terms of taxes.

"But we have expenses, including keeping the sidewalks in good repair. And I think the visitors should help us pay for that. We're glad to have them ... but the visitors and those who bring them here must realize that they create a burden."

Meanwhile, Robert D. Agee, city administrator and public works director, said a team of city workers is examining the state of the city's sidewalks, which they plan to put into a geographical information system to better pinpoint problem areas.

About three years ago, Agee said, the city determined that 32 of the city's 120 miles of sidewalks were in need of repair.

The cost to fix them then was estimated at $400,000.

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