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San Diego may spend $100 million on sidewalk repairs; City leaders urge shift to financial solutions as injury payouts mount

This precarious sidewalk fronts houses on the 7000 block of Draper Avenue in La Jolla, as photographed January 2020.
(Photo by Corey Levitan)

San Diego officials have unveiled a new plan to spend $90 to $100 million over the next decade to complete a backlog of more than 81,000 City sidewalk repairs to stem a recent tide of large injury payouts.

Solving the problem of crumbling sidewalks with a large influx of cash is a significant shift for San Diego officials, who have spent the last several years exploring policy changes as potential solutions.

Because repairing sidewalks is the legal responsibility of adjacent property owners, City officials have considered property liens, education campaigns and waivers of permit fees to encourage more effort by homeowners.

But with the City being forced to cover more than $11 million in injury payouts for sidewalk lawsuits over the last five years, Council member Mark Kersey (Black Mountain Ranch) says it’s time for a new approach. (See related letter, A22)

“Our residents want us to make this a priority,” Kersey told his colleagues during a recent meeting of the Council’s Active Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. “How we best demonstrate that is through the budget.”

A comprehensive assessment in 2015 of the City’s sidewalks found 108,706 needed repairs. Just over 27,000 of those repairs have since been completed, leaving 81,000 more — plus any new problems that have arisen.

Officials in the Transportation & Stormwater Division unveiled a plan during the committee meeting to hire 23 new employees for an aggressive sidewalk repair push. The City would increase annual spending from about $2 million per year to $5 million during the budget year that begins July 1, and then up to $9.6 million per year over the next nine years.

In addition to reducing injury payouts, the aggressive push would help residents avoid unnecessary injuries and decrease the number of disputes between the City and property owners over needed repairs, officials said.

In connection with the aggressive push, City officials revealed additional proposals in December that would encourage more property owners to complete the repairs — either by themselves or with the City.

The City’s 50/50 cost-share sidewalk repair program allows property owners and the City to split the costs for repairs equally. But there is a waiting list of more than 230 property owners.

Increasing the annual subsidy for the program from $300,000 to $2.4 million would increase the number of repairs each year from roughly 45 to more than 130. The money would be part of the $90 million to $100 million budget increase for sidewalks, officials said.

The City might also sharply reduce or eliminate $2,000 in permit fees that property owners now must pay when they handle a sidewalk repair themselves. Council member Chris Ward (University Heights) said his research indicates Los Angeles charges only $150 for the same type of permit. Ward said he’d like to see either a sharp reduction or an explanation for the large gap.

Ward also said other cities allow property owners who make sidewalk repairs to pay the City back for the work over many years. This can be accomplished with property tax surcharges, he said, adding he further wants the City to consider prioritizing repairs in areas with the most damaged sidewalks and, consequently, the most potential trip hazards.

Kristy Reeser, a Transportation & Stormwater deputy director, said City officials now target areas of high pedestrian use when deciding how to prioritize repair sites, adding that an ongoing audit of City lawsuit payouts indicates that is a sound strategy.

The City paid $4.85 million to Del Cerro resident Clifford Brown in spring 2017 for a 2014 crash in which he tore spinal cord ligaments and lost several teeth when he and his bike were launched 28 feet by tree-damaged sidewalk. That settlement, the largest in city history for a case involving sidewalks, was unusually big because of Brown’s medical bills, his need for future medical care and the possibility he won’t be able to work again.

Last March, the City paid $1 million to Edward and Mary Jo Grubbs for injuries Mary Jo suffered when she tripped on an uneven sidewalk in April 2016 on Park Boulevard at Madison Avenue in University Heights.

In another notable suit, a jury awarded Cynthia Hedgecock, the wife of former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, just under $85,000 in December 2017 for ruptured breast implants she suffered during a 2015 sidewalk fall. An attorney for Hedgecock said the City behaved with negligence and carelessness by not repairing a 2.5-inch concrete lip in a public sidewalk in Pacific Beach that was caused by a tree.

The City is facing steadily greater liability as more people ride bicycles on sidewalks, where even the smallest lip can cause a crash with significant injuries.

Some have suggested shifting all costs to the City — and away from homeowners — to simplify a confusing policy and avoid the inaction that often comes when homeowners can’t afford their portion of the repair bill.

City Attorney Mara Elliott, however, said that change would likely be a windfall — at taxpayer expense — for the insurance companies of property owners.