Gene Testa is not a happy camper.
Actually, he’s not a camper at all. He is a landlord who owns a number of houses in the city of Akron. And he is unhappy because walking the sidewalk in front of his houses can be as dangerous as walking around a campsite in the wilderness.
Two years ago, Testa was mowing the grass at a house he owns on Patterson Avenue in North Hill. When he recognized a person approaching on the sidewalk, he shut off the mower for a chat.
The 89-year-old woman, a non-driver, was walking to the Patterson Park Community Center, just up the street. As they chatted, she tripped and began to fall. Because she was only 5 feet tall and Testa was right next to her, he was able to catch her before she crashed to the ground, perhaps averting a broken hip or worse.
After they regained their composure, they looked down at the sidewalk and saw a huge difference in the levels of two adjoining concrete slabs. That difference had nailed her.
The difference was a direct result of the long-term growth of a tree planted by the city on the tree lawn — er, sorry, on the devil’s strip, for those of you born and raised in Akron. As the tree grew, it lifted one slab of the sidewalk while leaving the adjoining slab undisturbed.
So Testa called the city and talked to a number of people, including the service director, lobbying for a repair. He didn’t get one.
Fast forward to this summer — two years later.
He is cutting the grass again. This time he sees a mother pushing a baby stroller.
As she approaches that same stretch of sidewalk, she decides to evade it by pushing the stroller out into the street — on the outside of parked cars — and then directing it back onto the sidewalk after passing his house.
Testa blew his stack. Then he did what a lot of other people seem to do when they believe they have gone through the proper channels and been ignored: He called his favorite newspaper columnist.
A couple of days later, I swung by the property with a small tape measure.
The difference between two of the slabs is a full 5 inches. About 10 yards away, near another tree, facing the opposite direction, the difference is 5½ inches.
The wheels on a typical baby stroller: about 6 inches in diameter.
Because the situation is dangerous, and because the danger was created by a city tree planted on a piece of land the city controls, we logically would assume that the city would be willing to fix it.
And the city is. Sort of.
In theory, Akron will pay for repairs when a city tree has caused sidewalk damage. But the backlog has grown to 250 cases, and the wait is more than two years.
The total amount budgeted each year for sidewalk repair is $200,000 — a pittance in a city with a capital budget of $218 million.
A special program to repair sidewalks was launched in 2004. The annual budget has always been $200,000, but it usually isn’t met. The average expenditure per year has been $177,000.
Since 2010, only 160 repairs have been performed in the entire city.
When residents phone the city’s 311 line and register a complaint, “They get added to the list, and the list is worked on a first-come, first-served basis,” says Deputy Service Director Phil Montgomery.
“The Engineering Department goes through and works them as the budgeted amount allows for each year.”
Qualifying for a repair is easy: The minimum height difference must be at least half an inch.
When the city fixes the slab in question, but the homeowner wants an entire stretch of sidewalk replaced, the extra work is assessed to the owner at $25.25 per linear foot.
Residents of a city block can submit a petition to replace their entire run of sidewalk. If 75 percent of the homeowners are onboard, the city will do the replacement and assess them.
In theory. Not a lot of that going on, either.
The old woman Testa saved two years ago has since died. The problem has not.
This certainly isn’t the most pressing matter in the city of Akron, but it is a qualify-of-life issue that deserves more attention than $177,000 a year.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.