DENVER — Next Tuesday, you’ll decide on several ballot measures.
In Denver, voters are considering several new initiatives, including whether to tax themselves with a new fee for funding sidewalks.
Denver Initiated Ordinance 307 is a twice-yearly sidewalk fee for property owners, and it is one of the more contentious issues this election cycle.
“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” said Margaret Atencio who has lived in her quaint home on a corner lot in southwest Denver for more than two decades. “Since 1996.”
At 75 years old and on a fixed-income, maintaining her yard and sidewalks is no easy task.
“In the winter, I have to pay someone to shovel my walks and the more it snows, the more I pay,” she said.
Which is why she and some of her neighbors with long sidewalks aren’t so keen on a proposal to tax residents for every single foot of sidewalk around their homes.
“It’s going to hurt people badly,” Atencio said. “For my corner lot, it would be $359 a year and I just have Social Security. So, it’s got to come from something else – food, clothes, something.”
Down the street, Martin Vigil, who has sidewalks on three sides of his home, estimates he’d pay close to $620 a year under the proposal.
“I’ve got a lot of sidewalks. So, if they charge per linear foot, I’m going to pay more than my neighbor across the street who only has the front section of their sidewalk,” Vigil said. “And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Neither does Denver City Councilman for District 2 Kevin Flynn, who has crunched the numbers for many of his constituents in Harvey Park, estimating some could pay close to $1,000 a year under 307.
“I believe 307 is just massively inequitable,” Flynn said. “It’s inherent in how it’s structured.”
Flynn says while some with small homes will pay hundreds – others with large homes will pay next to nothing.
“I found million-dollar, $2 million dollar townhomes in affluent neighborhoods that pay as little as $39 a year because they are very narrow townhomes,” Flynn said.
On the flip side, Nica Cave supports 307.
“I use a variety of mobility aids, but yes, I’ve been disabled my whole life,” said Cave, who uses a wheelchair to get almost everywhere she goes. “Streets are seen as the primary mode of transportation and – for many of us like me – that is not the case. And we need our sidewalks to be prioritized, just as much as we prioritize the streets.”
According to the city of Denver’s own numbers, 40% of the city’s sidewalks are either missing or too narrow. And the number is even higher — 47% — in low income neighborhoods.
“Sidewalks are such a basic part of infrastructure,” said Molly McKinley with Denver Deserves Sidewalks. “Everyone is a pedestrian at some point.”
McKinley’s group estimates the average homeowner will pay $107 a year or about $9 a month under the proposal.
Right now, homeowners are responsible for fixing and maintaining their own sidewalks.
“You, as a property owner, never have to worry about being a construction manager, getting hit with thousands and thousands of dollars in construction fees or repairs for your sidewalk,” McKinley said. “And then, we have a better, more connected city.”
Supporters believe this is the path forward, estimating it will generate about $850 million and could be complete in nine years.
“I’ve been working on this issue for seven years,” said Jill Locantore, executive director with Denver Streets Partnership. “And I’ve talked to so many people who feel like sidewalks are the foundation of a complete transportation system, and we should be publicly funding sidewalks just like we publicly fund the streets.”
But that’s where former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb says Denver Deserves Sidewalks is getting it wrong.
Webb says publicly funded sidewalks should not come as a fee assessed to individual homeowners in varying amounts.
“My message is very clear: Senior citizens, people on fixed incomes, low-income people cannot tolerate all of these additional use taxes and fees,” Webb said. “If there’s a service that’s worthwhile that the government ought to be providing, it should come out of the general fund.”
There is also a 20% discount for homeowners living in certain neighborhoods listed under Denver’s Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Program, or NEST.
But Flynn argues that, too, is inequitable.
“It gives discounts to affluent households in gentrifying neighborhoods,” Flynn said. “The very neighborhoods that their presence has gentrified, they get a discount whether they’re low-income or very high-income.”
No one seems to disagree that Denver needs sidewalks.
Countless social media posts with millions of views highlight the issue well.
But how we get there is the debate.
“Denver does deserve sidewalks, but I don’t vote on slogans,” Flynn said. “I vote on the details and the specifics. And the specifics of this are horribly inequitable.”
“It’s my lived experience using the sidewalks as my primary pathway to get where I need to go,” Cave said.
“This is further gentrifying Denver,” Atencio said. “Give me a break. Don’t make it too expensive for me to live in this home.”
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One last thing... Haven't voted yet? We've made it easy to find all our election resources with a comprehensive Colorado 2022 mid-term election voter guide, which includes information on the top statewide races, the U.S. Senate and Congressional races, and the 11 statewide ballot measures up for a vote this year.