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Sidewalk repair

A mailman walks through the front yard of an Old West Side neighborhood home to avoid a sidewalk closure on Tuesday morning in Longview.

To address a backlog of more than 2,500 sidewalk defects, Longview has added a second sidewalk crew, and the City Council this week will discuss adding an additional tree crew.

The city has 834 reported sidewalk complaints, 690 of which are the city’s responsibility to fix, according to a staff report.

In addition, a 2018 city tree inventory found 1,997 sites where the roots of city-owned trees had pushed up and damaged the sidewalks. There was some duplication in the two lists, so the total number of defects is 2,522.

Gini Mickel, who lives in the Old West Side, said she was glad to see this week that the city is fixing a stretch of sidewalk that a city-owned gum tree had lifted and tilted outside her home. She said she often walks the neighborhood with her dog, but she’s especially nervous about tripping when it’s dark outside.

“(The sidewalk repairs) are necessary, and I’m glad it’s finally happening,” she said.

A couple years ago, a girl tripped on the sidewalk near her house and was injured so badly she was taken away in an ambulance, Mickel said.

Over the past decade, the city has paid a total of nearly $865,000 for 58 insurance claims related to sidewalk hazards, according to the city. Six claims are still open.

“Although not paid directly by the City, the claims history affects the city’s liability coverage premiums,” staff said in a report to the City Council. “The costs also do not adequately tell the story of the pain and suffering experienced by people who have fallen due to hazardous sidewalks and injured themselves, sometimes very seriously.”

The problem has become part of the current City Council election debate, with Councilman Mike Wallin saying he frequently hears complaints about sidewalks from constituents and incumbents Scott Vydra and Don Jensen highlighting the council’s efforts to address the problem.

City Manager Kurt Sacha on Tuesday said the number of complaints to the city has increased noticeably in the last few years.

“I think it would vary, but these are the ones that met the threshold for us to designate them as being hazards, or at least defects, which is anything greater than a half-inch rise,” Sacha said.

He added that the city’s mature urban forest could be a large factor because many of the reported hazards are in areas with older trees. And when the trees were planted, some almost a century ago, the city may not have worried as much about the size of the planting strips, Sacha said.

The city has one sidewalk repair crew, consisting of three public works employees. On average, the crew repairs about 60 to 70 sites annually, according to the city.

The City Council budgeted a second sidewalk crew for 2019-2020, which would double sidewalk repairs to 120 to 140 sites annually and cost about $500,000.

However, hiring the crew was delayed because the equipment took a while to arrive, Sacha said.

The city decided to further delay hiring after Initiative 976 received enough signatures to make it on the November ballot. The initiative would eliminate the transportation benefit district, or the tax generated from car tab fees. Longview’s street maintenance crew is funded with TBD dollars and would be eliminated under the initiative. If that happened, the city could move those employees over to the sidewalk crew and avoid laying them off, Sacha said.

As a result, city staff during a workshop on Thursday will recommend contracting out $300,000 in sidewalk repairs and put off hiring the additional sidewalk crew until after the election.

Also during the workshop at 6 p.m. in City Hall, the council will consider adding a second tree crew because city staff has found that the majority of the sidewalk damage is due to city trees.

“As long as a large urban forest of city-owned street trees is maintained and our sidewalk repair and urban forest management strategies and capacity remain unchanged, sidewalk damage will continue as trees grow; and the number of defective sidewalk sites will grow faster than our two City crews can repair them,” according to the staff report. “In order to control the growth rate of defective sidewalks, staff recommends managing our urban forest differently to reduce the number of trees causing sidewalk damage.”

Longview’s urban forest, which includes 14,000 city trees, has earned the city 35 years as a Tree City USA in recognition of the city’s dedication to its urban forest.

However, as these trees mature, their roots grow and damage sidewalks, especially those that are located in narrow planting strips.

The existing sidewalk crew can cut and grind roots underneath sidewalks, according to the city, but the urban forest crew is needed when there could be more extensive impacts on the tree.

“The existing (urban forest) crew should be able to keep pace with the needs of our two sidewalk repair crews; however, doing so will further reduce their ability to focus on maintaining the health of the rest of the urban forest,” according to the staff report.

The additional tree crew would consist of a lead technician, an arborist and an urban forest technician. The crew would cost about $491,000 annually, including labor, supplies and a new fleet debt service. The one-time equipment costs would be about $440,000. Over the long term, a city crew would cost less than contracted services, according to the city.

To cover the costs, city staff suggests using the $250,000 budgeted in debt service for the cancelled Beech Street box culvert project. The remaining costs would result in a 4.8% increase in the stormwater rate, or about 66 cents a month for each residence.

The council will also consider revising the city code to take responsibility for damaged sidewalks that were not caused by city trees. Currently, the property owners are responsible for them.

“It’s really city infrastructure,” Sacha said. “It’s kind of like the city streets; we don’t necessarily require citizens to pay for streets in front of their homes when they become defective. We’re looking at sidewalks in the same vein.”

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