Allentown is taking a step back – at least temporarily -- from ordering residents in a Southside neighborhood to pay thousands of dollars to have sidewalks and curbs installed along their properties.
“We put this on hold until we can perhaps provide some other alternatives for financing,” said Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director.
He said the city will be looking at best practices in other municipalities across the country “to see what we can do to help mitigate the sting, the pain, of the financial hardships that this will cause many citizens.”
One of those citizens appealed to City Council for help Wednesday night.
John Cheer, who lives along E. Cumberland Street in south Allentown, told council that on March 7, he received a letter from the city advising him that he needs to install sidewalk and curb along his property.
“That’s going to cost me over $10,000,” said Cheer.
“I called the city to ask if there isn’t any option for me at all. We do not have the funding. We barely make it, just from day to day, to balance the budget.”
The response Cheer got from the city “was very shocking.” He was told that, if he does not have the work done, the city will do it and put a lien against his house “and put interest on top of that”.
He said many of his neighbors up and down Cumberland Street are facing the same financial hardship.
“I always believed the city is for the people and by the people,” said Cheer. But after getting that kind of response from the city, he felt not like a person, but “like some kind of livestock that could be slaughtered at any time.”
Cheer said he was raised in a Communist country until he was 12 or 13. “I know how it feels to be powerless, to not be heard.”
He pleaded with all City Council members to pay attention to the issue “and give us a break, please. We’re small people.”
After the neighbors got publicity about the problem, and even called the White House, Cheer said Mayor Ed Pawlowski responded two days ago and promised all the neighbors that he will look into finding some kind of solution that gives them financial relief.
Dougherty said those neighbors were invited in to meet with the mayor on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We have expressed our empathy; we understand their plight,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty said the city also will re-evaluate its communications procedures “that the engineering departments sends out to our citizens.”
He said Cheer and a few other neighbors have been “inordinately affected” because they are being told to install brand new sidewalks, not just repair existing sidewalks. “You have an expedential increase in the amount of money it will cost.”
The city wants the new sidewalks and curbing installed before it repaves Cumberland Street. Some residents have said they have lived without sidewalks and curbs on that street for decades.
In April some of the residents unsuccessfully appealed to the Allentown Planning Commission for help.
Dougherty told council that Cheer raised important public policy/public good questions that almost every city in the country has been grappling with for a long time.
He said cities do not absorb the expense of installing sidewalks “because it’s too cost prohibitive.”
Dougherty said Allentown’s sidewalk ordinance dates back to 1962. Cheer suggested to council that it’s time to update that law.
“We know the economic circumstances of many people, including Mr. Cheer and his neighbors, have changed dramatically over the years,” said the managing director.
Dougherty commended City Council member Peter Schweyer for taking a leadership role in trying to help the Cumberland Street residents.