At a meeting of the city council's advisory board last week, Mayor Jim Orr said City Attorney Amy Boxx has issued an opinion that the city would be liable for injuries on sidewalks.
In the past the city has not expressed much interest in sidewalks, which are considered to belong to homeowners on whose property the walks sit.
Around four years ago, Orr said, the city offered to rebuild sidewalks for homeowners if the property owners would pay for materials. No one expressed interest in the offer.
Sidewalks downtown were replaced in 2000 as part of the downtown betterment project. Property owners formed a community improvement district and paid for the project by a self-levied assessment, collected like a property tax.
Orr had said that if there were trees nearby deemed responsible for the sidewalk problems, the trees would have to be removed.
"We're looking at next year's budget and we'll start replacing sidewalks," Orr said. "I don't want to replace sidewalks if we're not going to take out the trees."
The process of going through neighborhoods replacing sidewalks would be slow. Orr said the street department had gained significant experience with sidewalks putting in the Greenways Trail network.
Putting the sidewalks back in the same place seemed to be the least complicated approach. Placing the sidewalks closer to the curb, like the Greenways sidewalks, run the risk of covering water meters.
"I think it's a touchy issue," said Commissioner Mike Brownsberger. "People would be OK with the sidewalk if we would leave the trees."
Some places in town have had trees "trimmed" by passing tractor trailers, the mayor said. Many of the trees in question have been planted between the sidewalk and the street, all of which lies in the city right-of-way. Under such conditions, the city has the right to remove the trees.
Utilities Superintendent Pete Rauch said when tree trimmers in the electric department have to take out trees, they offer a potted tree to the property owner as an optional replacement. Rauch said the only requirement he asks is that the property owners do not plant new trees under power lines.
Several advisory board members liked the idea of compensating property owners with a new tree.
As for replacing sidewalks, opinions were mixed. One view was the sidewalks do not have to be replaced, thus removing the liability. Most of the older sidewalks around town were built by the Work Projects Administration around 1940, said Commissioner Jerry Dierker. Many subdivisions, especially newer ones, have no sidewalks. Placing sidewalks was up to the developers, said Dierker.
Orr said council members had not decided how to proceed.