At Least There Are Roads In Annapolis

The Annapolis city council last October enacted a $25 tax on each resident in the city in exchange for the city doing general maintenance on sidewalks, taking the burden away from property owners. The tax was set to raise $500,000, but generate over $17 million in liability! Even if the city council didn’t know those exact numbers, they certainly knew that they were drawing the short stick in that deal. So why do it? Well, my guess is to set a precedent. There is a ton of property in this city that is property-tax exempt for one reason or another, and this sidewalk tax would have avoided that by taxing everyone. If you set a precedent by taxing everyone $25, it’s a lot easier in the future when you want to hit everyone up for $1000.

The public and the media largely ignored this issue until residents began receiving their bills for $25 a couple of months ago. People without sidewalks realized that they were being charged for sidewalks. Others were concerned with the city taking on so much liability. The city council began to hold hearings on the matter, and the tide began to turn towards repealing the tax. As if that weren’t enough, the tax was unconstitutional, and word came from the Attorney General’s office that the tax wouldn’t pass muster.

Alarmingly, the issue didn’t die there. In a recent work session, Mayor Moyer asserted that the unconstitutionality of the tax was only established in an advisory opinion–rather than case law–implying that she was willing to run with the tax until the city actually got sued and the tax could be invalidated in a more formal manner!

This brings us to Monday’s city council meeting. The council considered O-21-08, which would have repealed the tax. But, that’s not all it did. The bill went on to define the process by which sidewalks are to be repaired from now on:

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-private property owners are responsible for sidewalk maintenance and upkeep.

-the director of public works, at his subjective whim, can determine that a sidewalk is “necessary for public convenience and safety”, and compel a person to fix or install a sidewalk.

-after being notified, a person has 20 days to obtain a building permit and make the repairs. Or, they can file an appeal which must be done no later than 30 days after notification.

-design specifications for the sidewalk must be approved by the director of public works in accordance with standards that he designs.

-a ‘Sidewalk Assistance Revolving Fund’ is to be established, funded with 5% of the city’s allocation of the State Highway User Fee.

That bill was better than the $25 tax, but not by much, and it failed. What did pass was R-34-08, a bill which suspends collection of the $25 tax but leaves the original O-12-07 intact. More importantly, it enumerates a laundry list of nearly 20 things that the city must due in regard to sidewalks–things that should have been considered before O-12 was enacted in the first place.

The result is as follows. Property owners are still responsible for first-time installation of sidewalks, but the city is on the hook for repairs. This is halfway to the solution that makes sense to me, which is to have the city be responsible for it all and pay for it out of normal funds. Speaking of funding, R-34 is not good. While it repeals the fee, it leaves the provision requiring a Sidewalk Fund. So, there is a mandatory fund without a source of funding, and mandatory spending without a source of funding = structural deficit. This is easily resolved by removing the fund and creating a capital program for sidewalks, but the fact is R-34 does not do this.

So in summary:
1. no more $25 tax
2. city taking more liability for sidewalk maintenance
3. no established funding source for said maintenance
4. further study needed

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