Durable Growth, Government

Increasing city fees as a symptom of a flawed land-use model

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

A few weeks back, I wrote about how walkability for all of us, but especially for seniors who may be less secure on their feet, relies on all homeowners maintaining their own lengths of sidewalk.

A regular reader responded to me, agreeing with the post, but noting that she’s delaying needed repairs to her section of sidewalk because of the City of Petaluma fees.  In her words, “I suspect that Petaluma sees the permitting process as a means of replenishing city coffers with minimum effort on their part …”

I’m sympathetic to her concern and wouldn’t be surprised to find that the average City cost to oversee a sidewalk repair project is less than the scheduled fee.  However, I think there is something more fundamental at work than maximizing revenue.  And it’s something that we should understand if we wish our communities to function better.

As I noted in the earlier post, the ability of a resident to accomplish an errand on foot depends not just on a well-repaired sidewalk in front of his home, but also well-repaired sidewalks in front of every home between his home and his destination.  Given that need, the resident has an economic incentive for his neighbors to maintain their sidewalks.

To me, that incentive is intuitive.  As a result, if a neighbor knocked on my front door, asking for a contribution toward his city fees for a sidewalk repair, I’d be tempted to participate.  (Assuming, of course, that I could establish that the request wasn’t an innovative scam.)

But it’s neither reasonable nor effective for every homeowner to wander his neighborhood with donation can in hand every time a sidewalk repair is needed.

So what developed instead was the communal sharing of sidewalk repair fees through the mechanism that best met the need, local taxes.  For many years, some small portion of our local taxes went to toward paying a portion of the city costs for sidewalk repairs.  When we paid our taxes, we were reducing the fees to our neighbors and thereby helping them make the repairs needed to sustain our own walkability.

I doubt the many folks ever specifically argued for reduced sidewalk fees as a way to maintain community walkability.  Instead, it was a right-thinking cultural intuition that became embedded in city fee schedules.  It was a fair and reasonable system.

But, as happens too often to fair and reasonable systems, it didn’t survive.  When Howard Jarvis made his wrong-headed decision in the late 1970s that taxes were high, not because of a flawed land-use paradigm, but because government was inefficient, an unintended but nonetheless clear  part of the message sent to city halls was the public no longer wished to contribute toward the sidewalk fees for their neighbors.

The city halls heard the message.  In the scramble to find ways to balance the books in the decades since the passage of Proposition 13 and its offspring in other states, fees for approvals such as sidewalk repair have crept upward to include the full charge for all city costs associated with the repairs.  And, in many cases, these have likely exceeded the true costs as city officials found squinty-eyed ways to look at the data in their desperate search for loose nickels.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs.

However, there is a solution.  Moving toward a more urban land-use pattern offers a three-pronged solution.  First, greater density means that the same infrastructure, such as sidewalks, serves more people, allowing the repair costs to be spread more widely.

Second, if households are able to reduce their costs for automobile, which can be a surprisingly large chunk of a household budget, more funds are available to assist with neighborhood needs such as sidewalk repairs.

Third, the increased mingling in the public realm builds good feelings for other community members, increasing the willingness to share expenses.

All that remains to be done is to commit to a transition to a more urbanist world.  And then get started on sidewalk maintenance.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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