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Red paint warns pedestrians of an upheaval in a sidewalk on Edith Street in Missoula's Slant Street area between Brooks Street and Stephens Avenue. The city had notified 173 residents in the neighborhood of a sidewalk replacement project and an estimated assessment individual property owners will be required to pay. A public hearing on the project scheduled at the City Council meeting on Dec. 17 has been canceled, but a Dec. 12 meeting will take place to hear from citizens and staff.

At least one resident in Missoula’s Slant Street area was shocked recently to learn she may have to pay an estimated $38,882 for installation of a city-mandated sidewalk and curb.

City engineers’ initial estimate is that it will cost $55,382 to replace the sidewalk in front of Kathleen Kimble’s two-bedroom, one-bath house, as well as to install a curb and sidewalk along Franklin Street, where none exists. In the letter, the city notes that it estimates it will provide funding assistance of $16,500, leaving Kimble to pick up the rest of the cost.

“It’s an egregious bill and an egregious method to pay for sidewalks and curbs,” Kimble said. “Whether you want it is irrelevant. We need a better way to finance sidewalks.”

A few blocks over on Woodford, Ben Hart also received a cost estimate. His section to be replaced only includes the sidewalk across his compacted gravel driveway, which is estimated to cost $6,148. Of that, his estimated portion is $2,574, with the city picking up $3,574. He added that a recent estimate to pave his entire driveway was about $5,000.

“That came out of the blue,” Hart said. There are plenty of retired people that live around me whose cars aren’t worth $2,500 and they’re on a fixed income. … I’m not opposed to it, but for some of my neighbors, this will be hard.”

It wasn’t just the amount of the estimate, but the timing of the letter that also bothered Kimble and Hart.

“They sent the letter over Thanksgiving week. I think it is unreasonable to send a statement of a huge, looming bill that requires research and possible action and public comment and making staff available to the public … when people are busy and stressed, and may be out of town,” Kimble said on Thursday. “It’s the timing of the letter, the amount to a single homeowner, and the method for which Missoula has chosen to finance sidewalks. It’s irrelevant whether I want it or need it. What’s relevant is what’s fair for everyone. Is there a better way to pay for sidewalks and curbs?”

“It’s really disingenuous to do this now, right before the holidays when everyone has something on their plate,” Hart added. “The idea that the city of Missoula needs pedestrian sidewalks on every side of every street is preposterous.”

Kevin Slovarp, the city engineer, said this is Phase 2 of the ongoing sidewalk replacement project in the Slant Streets area, which is a portion of a larger overall Master Sidewalk Plan approved almost a decade ago for the systematic completion, repair and upgrade of the city’s sidewalk system. The letters that went out last week are only the first step in the process, with this phase still needing approval of the City Council before moving forward.

Of the 173 property owners who received a letter from the city about their sidewalks, only 19 have total estimated costs of more than $10,000, Slovarp said.

“Essentially 154 property owners in the district have estimated assessments that are under $10,000, so that really large property assessment potential is not very common,” he added.

The City Council’s Public Works Committee is scheduled to discuss the project during its Dec. 12 morning meeting, and make a final decision at its evening meeting Dec. 17. Public comments will be taken at both meetings, which are held in the council chambers at 140 W. Pine St.

Slovarp said the city had rejected sidewalk projects due to the cost before they passed a resolution in 2012 that set up a low-interest loan program for property owners, funded by gas taxes and the city’s general fund. Since then, he doesn’t recall any projects being denied.

“Normally, when those improvements are made in front of or adjacent to properties, it does increase their value,” Slovarp said. “That’s a direct benefit to property owners they can receive when they sell their house. I know that’s not the reason for assessing the high amount, but it is a direct benefit.”

While sidewalks — and level ones in particular — make walking safer for pedestrians, the curbs and gutters also are important, Slovarp said. They act as a barrier between parking places and the grass or dirt boulevards, and improve air quality by not allowing vehicles to drive on the boulevards. They collect runoff to send into the city’s stormwater drain system instead of having the runoff freeze and thaw on the edges of the asphalt, which makes it degrade more quickly. 

“And they define the roadway and act as a barrier so pedestrians on the sidewalk adjacent to the roadway, so they can feel more of a sense of safety because a vehicle would have to jump a curb in order to drive onto the sidewalk area. It’s added protection,” Slovarp said.

Councilor Gwen Jones, whose Ward 3 includes the Slant Streets, noted that in just about all of Montana’s cities, the homeowners are responsible for all or part of the sidewalk and curb sections, even though it’s the cities’ responsibility for not having hazards, like roots pushing up sidewalk sections.

For Jones, whose children walked to school in the Slant Streets region, safety is paramount.

“People walk in the streets when there’s no sidewalk and there’s snow,” Jones said. “We walked our kids to Paxson back in 2004, and half of the streets had no sidewalks. In the last few years walking is a much better experience. I know it’s expensive, but it makes a big difference in the quality of life.”

Both Jones and Slovarp said the city works closely with property owners to find ways to keep costs as low as possible, and they encourage them to contact the city and start a dialogue.

"We really want to meet with folks one on one to understand what they want for improvements and how we can best make that happen," Slovarp said. "We want proposed improvements that fit their needs."

But Jones readily acknowledged that for property owners in Kimble’s position, the city may not have a good answer for how they’re supposed to pay for large bills.

“She kind of has the perfect storm, with no curb and no sidewalk [on Franklin] and the sidewalk being replaced. That’s difficult,” Jones said, offering to work with Kimble on options. “In the past, there are always a few difficult situations; most of the work is in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, and while it’s not fun, it’s doable. Her chunk is a big chunk and the City Council will look at how we can cut down on that.”

She noted that once the entire grid is filled in, eventually it’s “all good” for commuters. Jones cautioned about agreeing to waive the cost for some of the larger projects because that’s a slippery slope to start down.

“It’s a hard one, but after that infrastructure goes in it does make a big difference,” Jones said. “You see more people walking. It’s highly painful going in; I know we paid a big chunk for our part of the sidewalk going in.”

Councilor Jesse Ramos said it’s not right for property owners to have to pay for what essentially is a city-owned sidewalk.

“They have no right to tell citizens what to spend their money on,” Ramos said. “They tell us they care about folks on fixed income, and what do they do? They try to impose fines of hundreds of dollars for not having sidewalks shoveled, they raise taxes nearly 4 percent, then they require citizens to pay for their sidewalks that they then require them to shovel."

Added Ramos: "It is becoming more apparent that the city doesn’t want Missoula to be a city for all, they want a city for the rich that can pay for their dreams and could care less about the dreams of the citizen.”

For now, Kimble would like to see a change in the way people are notified about the estimated costs, noting that the initial letter should tell people that they will have some funding options through the city. She’s exploring what those might be, including the 20-year low-interest loan, which is the longest term available currently.

“This area is pretty much rentals and students and seniors; a lot of blue collar folks,” Kimble said. “I want to sound the alarm, to get people to think. The funding formula they came up with in 2012 didn’t fix the problem.

“People are yelling about the shoveling snow fees, but guess what’s coming around the corner? A $39,000 tax bill and it could be more.”

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