In a major financial pivot Friday, Missoula Mayor John Engen announced he was canceling a pricey sidewalk project that had drawn ire from property owners who would, in part, be responsible for the costs.
Ginny Merriam, Missoula's communications director, said the mayor had withdrawn the plan "because of high costs to property owners."
"Sidewalks are an important part of our transportation system, and we need more of them, but we can't break the banks of adjacent property owners to build them," Engen said in the emailed statement. "We've been working with an imperfect system for a long time, and the council has worked hard to temper costs, but the price of the program is out of hand. We need to create a better, more equitable method for building and paying for sidewalks."
Instead, Engen said he will begin an internal review of the program this month in hopes of launching a less expensive plan to be considered in the 2020 budget process.
The estimated average cost of the sidewalk upgrades or installation was $4,353 for the 173 properties involved in the proposed project area. That includes estimates ranging from less than $3 to about $6,800.
But for 19 homeowners, mainly those who own corner lots, their estimated portion of the project was going to be anywhere from $10,554 for a home on Edith Street, to $42,679 for a home on Stephens Avenue. Those figures are after an estimated $16,500 subsidy from the city for each parcel.
"For me, the numbers just got too big," Engen said in a Friday afternoon interview. "We have had lots of discussions over the years, and the council has done some good work trying to figure out subsidies. A lot of work was done when we were looking at assessments in the $20,000 range."
That work included changes made last year to the formula involving the city's and the property owners' costs, with the city picking up a larger portion this year.
The city picks up the first $1,000 of the costs of upgrades. After that, the property owners and the city each kick in $3,500, for a total of $8,000. The city covers 100 percent of the costs between $8,000 and $20,000, with the property owner paying for any amount beyond that.
Engen said that had he known about the high potential assessments, he would have talked to the city staff before the letters were sent to the property owners.
"We had some internal communication issues here," Engen said. "I will never claim that we are perfect, and everybody is doing their best. But when I learned about the size of the assessments, I might have had a conversation with staff to talk before those letters went out.
"Staff was doing what they normally do, but when the numbers are that high, we probably should have internal conversations first."
For Regina and Al Thomas, their estimated portion of the sidewalk replacement cost was $16,995 after the city maxed out at its $16,500 contribution. Both are retired and living on a fixed income, and on Thursday weren't sure if they would be forced out of their home by the sidewalk costs.
They were thrilled to hear about the cancellation on Friday.
"What a great Christmas present," Regina Thomas said. "They must have gotten a lot of backlash."
City Engineer Kevin Slovarp said his office fielded calls from 36 different property owners who had questions or concerns.
The Public Works committee will meet on Dec. 12 to discuss the program and hear from citizens and staff.