Melchor Nunez thought he was doing a good deed by asking the city to repair his 96-year-old neighbor's sidewalk in northeast Kansas City. The concrete was buckling from sweet gum tree roots.
But when he learned the city could assess her $4,000 to fix a problem of the city's own making, he backed off.
"She didn't plant the tree," Nunez said. "She'll get a heart attack if you tell her it will cost $4,000."
Councilman Scott Wagner said he's heard from several Northeast-area constituents who report serious sidewalk tripping hazards from sweet gum trees planted by the city. Under city policy, those residents could end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to correct the city's mistake.
It's just one of the confounding situations facing the City Council as it considers the much broader issue of crumbling sidewalks all over the city.
The city estimates it has 3,300 miles of sidewalks, many of them in poor condition. Fewer than 50 percent of residents, in recent citizen surveys, are satisfied with sidewalk conditions.
Councilman Russ Johnson, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said repair costs could exceed $900 million.
The current system, in place for decades, generally calls for adjacent property owners to keep sidewalks in good condition. But in many cases, those owners can't afford to or won't correct the problem, so conditions continue to deteriorate until someone complains, and then the city can require the repair.
In some instances, council members choose to allocate neighborhood sales tax dollars to replace whole blocks of sidewalks. But even then, property owners are supposed to pay for replacing the broken portions, while the city pays for replacing what's still good.
Wagner would at least like to see the city consider some sort of income-based sidewalk subsidy program for people facing financial challenges.
Two years ago, at the height of the recession, the City Council did try to provide some relief.
In 2010 and 2011, the council approved spending $24 million in bond funds to help jump-start the local economy and address neighborhood infrastructure problems. Of that $24 million, $8.4 million went for sidewalks throughout the city, although they were mainly concentrated in the urban core. In those cases, residents were not charged for the sidewalks.
But that addressed just a fraction of the need.
Johnson notes that, if the city were to assume financial responsibility and plan a 25-year maintenance program with a systematic inspection and repair schedule, it could cost more than $35 million annually -- or more than $150 per household per year.
"The authority to create such new revenue lies exclusively with voters," Johnson said. "I am unsure whether or not the voters would support such a change regardless of the economic climate."
Still, Mayor Sly James and others, including Johnson and Wagner, want to raise awareness about the city's huge infrastructure maintenance challenges as well as possible remedies.
Earlier this year, James proposed a $1 billion general obligation bond package for the city to start to address some of its giant backlog of broken infrastructure, including streets, bridges and dangerous buildings. James noted it could also include rebuilding sidewalks in the neediest neighborhoods.
But other council members said all parts of the city need to see the benefit of the bonds, since all parts would help pay for it. The matter is on hold while the council debates how to make such a bond package affordable.
"It's definitely a part of the larger infrastructure conversation we need to have," mayoral spokesman Danny Rotert said.
As Carol Clopton gazes at the sweet gum tree outside her east Kansas City home, and the sidewalk heaving from its roots, she can't help but lament the damage.
"I didn't ask for this tree," she said. "I didn't ask for this chaos."
Clopton hates the nuisance sweet gum balls that litter her yard year-round. Even worse, she fears the city will make her fix the sidewalk at her own expense.
According the city, residents can spread sidewalk payments over 10 years, but Councilman Wagner realizes that's still an unwelcome burden for senior citizens and others struggling in this tough economy.
"We put the tree there, and we're putting the onus on them," he said. "I wish I had a good answer, but at least so far there's not a very good way to try to satisfy the issue."
Clopton is on a campaign to get the city to remove the sweet gum trees, which she said will only continue to cause sidewalk misery for thousands of residents.
She has appealed to state legislators to ban the planting of these trees. But she also would like to see the city seek grant funds and put unemployed Kansas City youth to work cutting them down.
"We need to make lemonade out of these lemons," she said.
City officials said it's not that simple.
City Forester Kevin Lapointe estimates the city planted close to 20,000 sweet gum trees, many four decades ago. Lapointe, who has worked for the city for 16 years, said he doesn't recall any being planted since that time -- although Clopton said the ones near her house were planted less than 15 years ago.
Sweet gums are now on a list of trees that the city will not plant.
Lapointe said some years ago he met one of the city's retired foresters, who admitted sheepishly that he didn't realize they would produce the spiny balls that are such a bother. Plus, the aggressive surface root system wreaks havoc with sidewalks.
"Those two things have made it the despised tree of most of the city," Lapointe said.
Still, Lapointe said these are hardy, mature shade trees and he's loath to take them down. Removal would cost $600 per tree, or millions of dollars that the park department doesn't have. Plus, the city doesn't have the money to plant new trees at the pace it should.
"We're losing so many trees," he said. "These are large trees, 40 to 50 years old. We won't see another tree like that in our lifetime."
Still, the city has learned from this unfortunate experience. Lapointe notes the city now takes pains to plant trees that are not an irritant and that are properly sized for their easement.
Some cities pay
Kansas City officials point out that many other cities also require property owners to take responsibility for sidewalk repairs.
In fact, Kansas state law states property owners are responsible. But some nearby Kansas suburbs make it a city responsibility.
In Overland Park, the city maintains the sidewalks and will spend $450,000 this year for that purpose, enough to fix a few square miles.
In Olathe, the city generally fixes sidewalks and curbs and spent about $150,000 in 2011.
In Kansas City, Kan., the city splits sidewalk repair costs with the homeowner, but homeowners must pay up-front and be reimbursed rather than spreading payments over years. Voters also approved a sales tax in April 2010 for street and neighborhood improvements, including new curbs and sidewalks.
On the Missouri side, Grandview assumes the maintenance responsibility for sidewalks, spending about $75,000 per year.
But those cities are newer and don't have nearly the miles of sidewalks that Kansas City does, nor the deferred maintenance costs.
Rotert, the mayoral spokesman, acknowledges that the way the city funds sidewalk improvements is not uniform throughout the city, and that putting the burden primarily on homeowners isn't a popular policy. It's something the council hopes to debate this summer, he said, as it tries to find an approach that can free up more money and that voters can support.
Wagner, too, hopes the city can find a new approach.
"It would be nice," he said, "to offer a resident another choice besides paying a $4,000 bill whenever we get around to replacing the sidewalk."