You've paid your taxes for decades, but your crumbling street hasn't been repaved since the Eisenhower administration. So you ask City Hall to step up, and the response goes something like this:
Sure, we'll fix the street. But only if, first, you pay several thousand dollars out of your own pocket to fix the curbs.
As crazy as it sounds, that's exactly what's happening in one Mar Vista neighborhood, where homeowners are voting between now and Aug. 21 on whether to establish a curb assessment district. If the proposal passes, who knows? Maybe you'll soon get a chance to pay for new curbs in your neighborhood too.
As I mentioned in last week's column, people who live on and near East Boulevard — between Venice and Washington boulevards — are split on the matter. But since then, I've spent more time looking into the details and eyeballing what are, without doubt, some of the city's most ridiculously crumbling streets, curbs and gutters. Driving through the neighborhood, you'd think you'd entered a U.S. Army test site for mortar shells.
Terri and Ken Davis, who would have to pay an estimated $6,721 for about 50 feet of curb repair, are voting no.
"I want my city to keep its obligation to me as a homeowner," Ken Davis said to me in an email. "Been paying taxes for a long time. Make me proud to be a contributing part of Los Angeles."
"I'm a Realtor," Terri told me as we stood near her damaged curb. "If I were selling a house in Culver City and there was a crack in the sidewalk, I could call City Hall to fix it because it's a tripping hazard. And they'd fix it."
Across the street, a "Vote No" sign sits on the front porch at the home of Mike and Kerry Cowden, who would have to fork over $7,343 for curb repair. And by the way, if you vote no, you still have to pay if the "yes" vote wins a simple majority.
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Mike Cowden told me that when Bill Rosendahl was running for City Council eight years ago, the candidate knocked on the door asking for support. Mike says his mother asked Rosendahl if he would fix the streets, and when he said yes, she stuck a Rosendahl campaign poster in the frontyard.
Eight years later, Rosendahl has come and gone, the street is worse, and the Cowden family has had to pay for repair of flat tires and car alignment damage caused by the lousy streets.
The Cowdens have several problems with the project. First, several thousand dollars would be a hardship for them and others. Some homeowners who can't pay would have the option of waiting and paying up when they sell their property, or they could pay it off over 10 years. But the finance charge would inexplicably top 9% at a time when market rates are much lower.
"Ten thousand dollars becomes almost $20,000," said Mike.
He and Kerry would also like to know why assessments have more than doubled since 2009, and why they're more than twice what a private contractor estimated when he was contacted by a neighbor. They also note that the estimated total cost of the project has increased from less than $700,000 in 2010 to just above $1 million now.
Carl de la Fuente, the city's project manager, told me that earlier lower estimates were just that — estimates. He said the streets in question have specific drainage and soil composition issues that require careful grading and curb/gutter construction, and lower estimates from a private contractor may not have taken that into account. Some nearby streets have had quickie resurfacing fixes that won't last more than a few years, he said. But the design in the curb assessment district, along with new roads, would be built to last 40 years.
Still, the city has moved so slowly that nearly three years have passed since a 2010 straw vote in which 70% of the residents said they would vote to assess themselves curb repair fees. The increased cost since then is making it harder to win support this time, said Stan Hoffman, a resident who has teamed with neighbor Chris McKinnon to campaign for a yes vote.
"I feel like I'll get the money back, because the neighborhood will be so much better," said Hoffman, who thinks the value of his home will increase with the improvements.
Hoffman's estimated assessment is $6,596 and McKinnon's is $7,500. They understand the complexities of why basic services have been scaled back in Los Angeles and elsewhere, due in part to soaring personnel and retiree costs. And they'd rather not have to write fat checks for curb repair. But Hoffman, 70, said he thinks it may be the only way the street gets repaved in his lifetime.
Councilman Mike Bonin, Rosendahl's brand new successor, told me he didn't want to choose sides. But he said the city seems to have a "pathetic dynamic" in which streets like East Boulevard are deemed to be so bad "they're not worth fixing," and available funds are instead spent on streets that are salvageable.
Pathetic is an apt description.
Bonin also said "it's unreasonable to expect hard-working people" to have to "pick up the tab" for basic improvements on what he perceives as public property, such as curbs and sidewalks.
I agree. But where does that leave it?
Maybe it's time for a bond measure, said Bonin, that raises money not just for street repair, but for the 4,500 miles of bad sidewalk too.
In other words, if you want streets and sidewalks fixed anytime soon in Los Angeles, you can beg, you can complain and you can even scream. But in the end, one way or another, you're going to pay.