STREET REPAIR FUNDING
Neighbors who live on 113th Street just north of Pacific were surprised one day in 2014 to find that their asphalt street had been ground into a dirt road.
At first they thought they would get a new street, said Joe Skradski, who lives along the stretch. But the City of Omaha never stepped forward with a new street. The dirt road was all the neighbors got.
Neighbors argue that their city tax dollars should pay to maintain their street.
"Right now we're living in misery," Skradski said.
But the city considers residential streets like theirs, which were never built to full city standards, the responsibility of the nearby property owners. Omaha has hundreds of lane miles of streets built that way, and city officials said the city just can't afford to upgrade them.
"The developer in the past made the decision to develop the street as an asphalt overlay," Mayor Jean Stothert said. "Is it the taxpayers' responsibility today to fix that decision? Or would they rather their tax dollars go to the heavily traveled major and secondary streets?"
After 113th Street neighbors and a second group of homeowners got the city to commit to some street funding, a discussion has surfaced at City Hall about the full extent of the problem.
Stothert and some City Council members are looking at finding money, possibly from bonds, to help neighborhoods pay to bring streets up to current standards.
The situation as it stands is not working, Councilman Chris Jerram said.
"I think it's a rather odd situation to have a metropolitan, urban community with essentially a patchwork of dirt and gravel roads that one might expect to find out in the country, right in the middle of the city," said Jerram, who is the chairman of the council's Public Works committee.
Public Works officials are set to brief the committee about the issue Tuesday.
But city leaders already know it's an expensive, wide-ranging problem: The Public Works Department estimates that it would cost roughly half a billion dollars to upgrade all the substandard streets.
About 360 of the city's 4,700 lane miles weren't built to code, Public Works Director Bob Stubbe said.
Some of that cost includes streets that aren't residential. Under the current policy, the city would likely already pay to upgrade those streets.
To fix the problem, City Engineer Todd Pfitzer said, "it's going to be very expensive, and it's going to be complicated."
After the city ground down the block of 113th Street, neighbors complained to city officials.
Skradski said the street went from being a serviceable asphalt strip with some large potholes, to what at times appears more like a mud puddle than a street.
"It's not so much about my street, but it's a policy failure," he said.
Pfitzer apologized that the neighbors hadn't received notice from the city that their street was going away, and he said the city has since started to notify other homeowners whose streets won't be maintained.
But, he said, Omaha just can't afford to fix all the streets that weren't properly constructed in the first place.
The council eventually stepped in, agreeing in September to pay half the nearly $200,000 cost of repaving the street. That cost would pay for a strip of asphalt, not the concrete, curbs and gutters required by city standards.
Today, 113th Street has not yet been repaved, and neighbors' frustration has only risen, Skradski said.
Then in November, another group of neighbors — South 95th Circle from West Center Road to the end of the cul de sac — asked the council to pay to fix a similar situation.
The council agreed to pay up to $70,000, but asked for a plan for how to handle similar situations in the future.
The current policy says that if a street wasn't built up to city standards — if it doesn't have a curb, gutters, sidewalks and concrete 25 feet wide — the city will patch it for a while.
But once such a residential street becomes too worn down, nearby homeowners have a few unpopular options. They can allow the city to grind it into a dirt road, take over maintenance of the street themselves, or pay to rebuild the street up to full city standards, at which point the city will maintain the street from then on.
The reason for the policy goes back to when the houses were built.
When building a neighborhood, a developer could choose the more expensive but long-lasting option of putting in concrete. That cost gets passed on to the people who buy the homes.
But some developers chose the cheaper route of simply putting asphalt on top of the ground. Such streets degrade faster, leaving more costs for the city — costs that city leaders don't want to place on city taxpayers as a whole.
Now, years later, homeowners — some of whom are new to their neighborhoods — are dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
Pfitzer said the city stopped repairing such streets about 10 years ago because it doesn't make financial sense to patch potholes on a street that is completely worn out.
"Do you repaint a rusty car?" he said. "You don't. This is throwing good money after bad. We have to stop the bleeding."
After the neighbors on 113th Street complained, Stothert said she decided to take a new look at the policy. She said she's considering offering a limited amount of money in the city's capital improvement plan so the city could pay half to bring a street up to standard.
"We can't control what happened in the past," Stothert said. "And there were a lot of roads that were put in this way in the past. And that's why I think we should offer some flexibility. But there's a limited amount the city can do, too."
With the city's limited amount of money, Stothert said she believes Omahans would rather pay to resurface major streets that are in poor shape.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, who represents the 113th Street neighbors, said he favors the mayor's idea of setting aside some money to help homeowners.
"It's not fair to saddle the city with all of the costs," he said. "Too bad we didn't get the developer to pitch in like they should have back in the day."
The neighborhood where Thompson lives chose in 2003 to repave its street, but not bring it up to the city's standards. Now, he said, that street is reaching the end of its life, and neighbors might have to start the process again.
The problem has been cropping up most often lately in the Westside area, but Pfitzer said there are problem streets all around the city. In some parts of eastern Omaha, certain streets were never paved, he said.
Council President Ben Gray, who represents north Omaha, has often complained about poor streets in his district. But he said he'd rather see the city spending its money on major streets in his area.
"Drive down Grand Avenue in north Omaha from 48th Street to 52nd," he said. "If you still have tires left call me and let me know."
Gray added: "Why don't we take care of what we have?"
Skradski said his father was one of the original homeowners on 113th Street who chipped in about 40 years ago to lay asphalt on the dead-end street. Now Skradski says he always expected that the city would maintain the street his father put in.
Although Skradski's street is scheduled to be paved this year, the city will only lay asphalt, not pour concrete.
Unless the policy changes, Pfitzer said, "you're back at this same thing again in 10 to 15 years."
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"It's not fair to saddle the city with all of the costs. Too bad we didn't get the developer to pitch in like they should have back in the day."
Councilman Franklin Thompson, who represents the 113th Street neighbors and favors the mayor's idea of setting aside money to help homeowners