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Denver’s sidewalk repair program needs fixes, audit finds

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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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