Council could force sidewalk repair issue

By Jason Hawk -

Councilman Chuck Winiarski

Councilman Chuck Winiarski

Broken and upheaved sidewalks are on Amherst city councilman Chuck Winiarski’s mind.

“We have a lot of sidewalk in town that’s in various states of disrepair. I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed it,” he told fellow council members Monday, asking for $40,000 to fund a pilot repair effort.

Of particular concern are sandstone slabs more than 70 years old. Since 1947, all sidewalks have been required to be composed of concrete.

Winiarski said three recent trips and falls along Cleveland Avenue sidewalks pushed the issue to the forefront of his mind.

Most notably, aging members of the Amherst Veterans Memorial Honor Guard have had difficulty traversing the stretch in front of Hempel Funeral Home where they often march in tribute to show respect to brothers and sisters in arms who have passed.

Reliable sidewalks are important to Amherst’s many older residents, those who value walking and jogging for exercise, and families.

“But I firmly believe that younger couples will not move to an area where you cannot pass a baby stroller down,” Winiarski argued in his pitch.

Sidewalk repairs would in no way be free. State law dating back to 1965 makes property owners responsible for the cost of sidewalk upkeep along their frontage.

As Amherst law director Tony Pecora pointed out, the process has been in place a half-century — it’s just not been enforced.

Winiarski is asking for a resolution directing the council clerk to send letters to those home and business owners with sidewalk problems. It would require fixes within 30 days in most cases and five days where broken walks create a danger to pedestrians.

If a property owner refuses to make the repairs, city workers would do them instead — that’s where the $40,000 would come in — and then the Amherst auditor’s office would assess the owner for the cost.

The proposal may sound straightforward, but it raised many questions.

Mayor Mark Costilow said there is no money allocated in the 2016 budget for such a plan. That’s not a deal-killer — but it means council would have to find the cash somewhere in order to move ahead.

There’s also the problem of where to start. With more than 200 linear miles of sidewalk in Amherst, the building inspector would need to canvass neighborhoods across the city to decide which sidewalks are the most deteriorated and recommend a plan to council.

“We would figure out how to do the worst first,” Costilow said.

Trees present another set of questions. Where roots lift slabs, what are the best repair options? Should walks be moved or should roots be cut?

And city auditor David Kukucka had warnings of his own. As “caretaker of the budget,” he is wary of trying to find sidewalk cash at a time when council has approved an aggressive $1.2 million street paving program, and when money needs to be saved up for major repairs to Cooper Foster Park Road in 2019.

The urged council “against spending money Amherst might not have” and advised lawmakers to slow down and refine their sidewalk ideas before a vote.

Winiarski’s request was tabled until council committees convene again at 7 p.m. on April 4.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Councilman Chuck Winiarski Chuck Winiarski

By Jason Hawk