Wheeling Officials Seek Path to a Feasible Sidewalk Improvement Plan
WHEELING — A proposal to repair or replace all damaged sidewalks in town within the next two years raised some eyebrows in the city of Wheeling last week.
Despite what seems to be a bumpy path ahead, city leaders on the Development Committee of Wheeling City Council are moving forward with an ambitious effort to at least develop a feasible plan to fix the city’s many broken sidewalks.
Wheeling’s city code puts the responsibility of sidewalk repairs on the abutting property owner, but private property owners — particularly in neighborhoods where the sidewalks are a mess — aren’t exactly lining up to invest in their own properties, let alone in the sidewalk in front of their house.
During last weeks Development Committee meeting, Vice Mayor Chad Thalman asked that a proposed resolution be read stating the city’s pledge to “make Wheeling a more walkable city by Dec. 31, 2023” by repairing all the severely cracked and damaged sidewalks that are presenting a safety hazard to pedestrians in the city.
After a moment of awkward silence following the reading, a seemingly stunned City Manager Robert Herron interjected.
“There is no way we can ensure that every sidewalk will be repaired or replaced by — whatever the term was — by 2023,” Herron said.
“This is a big frustration for people because this started in June of 2020, and 41 months is a long time to repair sidewalks,” Thalman said.
“I have extensive experience with citywide sidewalk repair and replacement programs,” Herron said. “There is no way to easily do this or cost effectively do this and fairly do this in the state of West Virginia,” Herron said. “And we have had that conversation.”
Herron explained that in the state of Ohio, municipalities have the ability to make repairs to sidewalks that are the responsibility of the abutting property owners, and then an assessment can be placed on their property taxes to recoup the money.
“The only way to do that in West Virginia is to pass a levy and a general obligation bond issue,” Herron said. “We have the ability to go out and require the property owner to make the repair. Just like we do on a demolition project. If they don’t make the repair, we have the ability to do the demolition and assess the property.”
That ties up capital, Herron said. Collecting money from those not interested in paying would be through forced sale of the property and take at least three years under home rule.
“We could fix the sidewalks — but that would tie up hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Herron said.
“I’m comfortable with that,” Thalman replied. “I think it’s that important.”
American Rescue Plan funds are not an option for a sidewalk repair program, Herron said. The city used to repair sidewalks using Community Development Block Grant funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development up until about five years ago after changes in regulations of CDBG funding usage.
“HUD looks at it as an individual benefit, not an area benefit,” Wheeling Economic and Community Development Director Nancy Prager said.
The city could fund sidewalk repair by passing a levy while still assessing property owners. Yet a levy still would need to be passed, and everyone in the city would pay into it. This includes property owners who already invest in keeping their sidewalks in good condition, as the city code requires.
The city already has hundreds of thousands of dollars in liens from property demolitions that it will likely never collect, Herron noted.
Thalman said the difference is that if the city demolishes a structure — a process that on average costs around $12,000 per house — the empty lot that remains there is no longer worth $12,000, so the city will not likely collect the money. If a house still sits on it, the property is worth much more, he said, and with a $2,000 lien on the property for sidewalk repairs, the city is much more likely to collect.
Officials noted, however, that the money can only be collected if the property owner is willing to pay or if the city somehow collects through the forced sale of the property. The city very rarely gets its money back after liens are placed on properties, officials stated.
“Obviously, the city should be worried about getting its money back, but that’s not the be-all, end-all goal here,” Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “When you drive through our neighborhoods, you see people pushing baby strollers down the middle of the street because the sidewalks are (impassable). So the goal is to have a city full of sidewalks in our neighborhood that work.”
The mayor said sidewalk problems in the city have gone on too long without being a priority by the city to get people to address the lingering issue.
“We should be looking for ways to incentivize it — either carrot or stick … or both,” Elliott said. “To me, it needs to be done if we’re going to have a city that we’re proud of. I don’t accept that we can’t do it. I’m not convinced that we know exactly what the best approach is yet, but I think it deserves a lot further consideration, and it needs to be a priority.”
A pilot program in a specific area was proposed, but ultimately, the Development Committee agreed to approve a resolution instructing city staff to come up with a plan to present to council that is “attainable and fiscally responsible,” but one that gets the job done.