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Falling down

SLO spends little on sidewalks, but big on sidewalk liability settlements

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In early March, a Cal Poly professor tripped and fell on a San Luis Obispo city sidewalk. He fell flat on his face, breaking his glasses, and leaving him with a nasty headache that lasted for days.

Picking himself up after his fall, the professor noticed the sidewalk was broken where he had fallen. The sidewalk looked like it hadn’t been repaved or fixed in years, a sad and not uncommon fact of life for city pedestrians.

“The fall wouldn’t have happened if the city maintained its sidewalks,” said Richard Schmidt, the unlucky professor.

Though Schmidt was injured in his fall, he didn’t try to get money from the city for his trouble. Others have.

The city allocated $20,000 a year in its Capital Improvement Plans for sidewalk repair in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal year. The amount spent on sidewalk repair has steadily dropped since the two-year budgetary cycle lasting from 2001-03 when the city spent $95,000 on sidewalk repair. The city is tentatively scheduled to spend $25,000 next year and $35,000 in the following year.

In addition to that work, the city sends out maintenance crews to do spot repairs, along with installing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ramps. Those expenses come out of the general maintenance fund. The city estimates it spends $200,000 per year repairing, replacing, or upgrading sidewalk and accessibility ramps to bring the city up to ADA requirements.

While the amount of money spent on sidewalk maintenance may have bottomed out, the total spent to settle trip-and-fall claims has remained robust.

The city had three claims filed against it in 2009, 10 in 2010, and none so far in 2011, according to a memo sent to the City Council by City Manager Katie Lichtig in March 2011. Three have been filed since then.

According to California state law, plaintiffs have to file a claim against the city before trying to sue the city. This gives cities a chance to settle or reject a claim, opening the door to a potential lawsuit.

According to this memo, the city pays out an average of $25,482 per claim. This means the city pays out many more times in liability payments than it pays out in sidewalk maintenance. And that’s not even including the cost of lawsuits.

In 2008, a 78-year-old woman tripped and fell over a piece of concrete jutting up from the sidewalk on Higuera Street south of Broad Street. According to the police report, she tripped on an “exposed portion of sidewalk.” The police officer snapped a picture of the jutting sidewalk.

According to a memo from then-SLO Police Capt. Ian Parkinson, addressed to the city’s risk manager, the fall occurred on a city maintained sidewalk and “appears to be an obvious trip hazard in the sidewalk.”

The city streets supervisor, Gary Keavney, investigated the incident and wrote in a memo that the city hadn’t been notified that there had been a tripping hazard and after reviewing the facts, recommended the city deny the woman’s claim. Which the city did.Both property owners and the city are responsible for the sidewalks in front of a business or residence. In practice, plaintiffs usually sue the city. Also, the city has a higher level of liability when it’s been alerted to a tripping hazard but hasn’t yet repaired the problem.

The city settled just before the lawsuit went to trial for $200,000.

The city, in the end, doesn’t actually pay its own money when it pays out for claims. The California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (PIA) does. The JPIA serves as insurer to many California cities, and it pays for the claims and litigation losses incurred by cities. SLO pays $1.3 million a year in premiums.

The city does pay for new sidewalks, but they’re rarely in residential areas. Part of $660,000 slated to be spent on two blocks of Higuera Street between Broad and Chorro streets will be spent on upgraded mission-style sidewalks, which are also being installed on upper Monterey Street, part of a $900,000 street refurbishment plan.

Councilman Andrew Carter said he’s heard a lot of criticism from residents over the state of the city’s sidewalks—and said he understands the frustration.

“It’s a valid critique,” Carter said. “Capital spending has remained flat for the last 10 years.”

He said he and the other council members would like to spend more on capital improvements, but rising costs are squeezing the budget, making increased spending on infrastructure almost impossible.

City spending on downtown sidewalks and not in the neighborhoods frustrates Schmidt.

“Why don’t they spend money fixing the sidewalks instead of spending on vanity projects downtown?” he said. “I don’t understand.”

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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