Denver’s sidewalk repair program needs fixes, audit finds

Denver’s program to ensure homeowners fix crumbling sidewalks itself needs an overhaul, according to a city audit released Thursday.

“The program is understaffed and significantly behind schedule,” the report from Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien’s office concluded. “The original flawed design of the Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program means Denver residents have unequal access to safe and accessible sidewalks as well as affordability options for repairs.”

When the sidewalk program began in 2018, the city estimated it would take several years to inspect sidewalks and work with homeowners to repair or replace them. Two years later, Denver officials estimate it will take half a century to get through all neighborhoods at the current rate. In addition, not all homeowners are being offered payment plans and discounts to help with the costs, and some sidewalk repairs completed don’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, the report found.

The city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure, which oversees the sidewalk program, agreed with O’Brien’s findings and timelines for changes.

The program has been at a virtual standstill since the sidewalk program’s lone inspector quit in December. The program had completed 1,100 inspections as of September — the same number the city told The Denver Post had been completed at the beginning of 2020.

“This year, Denver temporarily suspended sidewalk inspections amid the economic hardships experienced by many people due to COVID-19,” department spokesperson Heather Burke said. “We learned a lot from starting up this new program, and with the audit now complete, we’ll begin looking at making improvements to the program. Currently, we’re focused on finishing up existing repairs and will determine next steps as far as getting another inspector on board.”

The first region where the city launched the program — which includes Capitol Hill, Cheesman Park, Cherry Creek, City Park, Congress Park and Speer — is less than 25% inspected, the audit estimated, and the city will have eight more regions to go once that’s completed. A major reason the program is moving so much slower than anticipated is that so many sidewalks are requiring repairs, the report found — 80%, vs. the 12% the city anticipated at the outset, the audit found.

Homeowners must pay for repairs to sidewalks adjacent to their property, which account for about 80% of the sidewalks identified as needing work. The program offers discounts and payment plans for homeowners in the first region who are ordered to make repairs. However, owners in other neighborhoods can be ordered to replace sidewalks based on complaints lodged with the city, and if they’re outside the inspection region they don’t have access to the same financial breaks as those inside the region, the auditor found.

“Department managers said discussions to change this policy are in the early stages,” the report said.

Federal ADA rules set minimum widths and maximum slopes for public walkways — standards to make them accessible for those with various disabilities. However, those standards weren’t incorporated into the sidewalk program, and in a sample check of repaired or replaced sidewalks the audit found more than two dozen instances when the standards weren’t met.

“Department officials said the decision to not hold sidewalk repairs to ADA standards was made by previous managers; they said the decision was likely made to keep homeowners’ costs as low as possible,” the report said. “However, there is no documentation showing that the previous management nor the current leadership evaluated the program’s compliance with ADA standards since the program began.”

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