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Paterson's $500 Sidewalk Inspection Fee Stirs Debate Among City Officials

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d1257659850894cf71ec_sidewalk.jpg

PATERSON, NJ – Back in September, Marion Joynes decided she wanted to repair the sidewalk in front of her house on E. 28th Street. She hired a contractor, Alex Hussey, who went to the city offices to get the requisite permits.

But Hussey came back empty-handed. He refused to get the permits when he was told he would have to pay $500 for the city to inspect his work. “I told my customers not to pay these fees,’’ said Hussey, owner of Caribbean Mason Paving Stone and Ceramic Tile. “It’s unfair. It’s a rip-off.’’ In neighboring towns, Hussey said, sidewalk inspection permits cost less than 10 percent of what Paterson charges.

“It’s a five-minute job,’’ Joynes said of the sidewalk inspection. “Sometimes, he (Hussey) told me, they don’t even get out of their cars to do the inspection. Where is all this money going?’’

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City officials, however, say the inspections sometimes involve as a much as four hours of work. “It’s not just going out and looking at the job,’’ said Paterson Public Works Director Christopher Coke. “They also have to prepare a formal report. That could take hours.’’

Coke said the fees are needed to cover the expense of the inspections, about half of which he said are done by Paterson’s engineering contractor at extra cost to the city. “For them to reduce the fees at this point, without a thorough financial analysis, would be foolish,’’ said Coke, "especially at this point when the city council is asking us to generate new revenue. You can’t have it both ways.’’

Under Paterson’s fee schedule, the inspections cost $150 for spot repairs, $250 for 25 feet or less of sidewalk and $500 for more than 150 feet. There’s also a basic permit fee of $25 for every 25 feet of work.

The cost of the sidewalk repair inspections has now become the latest battleground in the ongoing war between the City Council and Mayor Jeffrey Jones’ administration.

“It’s clearly out of whack,’’ Councilman William McKoy said of the sidewalk inspection fee. “It’s clearly something that’s wrong and should be changed. It’s a barrier to good government.’’

McKoy accused the Jones administration of ignoring the problem and being “indifferent” to the plight of homeowners who want to improve their property. The councilman argued that the high fee forces many people to do the sidewalk repairs surreptitiously to avoid the cost, or to simply not have the work done at all.

McKoy wants the city to eliminate the inspection fee, under an ordinance that is scheduled to come up for an initial vote on December 18.

But Coke said Paterson’s sidewalk permit fees are comparable to those charged by other large cities, like Newark and Jersey City. Moreover, he said, the fees charged by the city’s engineering division generate between $150,000 and $180,000 in badly-needed revenue per year.

Jones said the council’s plans to eliminate the fee may be short-sighting considering Paterson’s fiscal problems, including a structural deficit of more than $8 million in its preliminary 2013 budget. “I don’t see how the council can talk about this $8 million burden on the taxpayers and then turn around and eliminate this fee that gets spread around among the various homeowners,’’ said Jones.

Moreover, the mayor said, the elimination of the sidewalk inspection fee may cause trouble with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which oversees Paterson’s finances as part of an agreement that provided the city with $21 million in much-needed Transition Aid last year. This year, the DCA’s decision on how much transition aid to give Paterson looms as crucial factor in the city’s handling of its current budget crisis.

“How do you explain to the state that you’re going to lower the fees when you’re asking them for more money?’’ Jones said.

Last year, Jones pointed out, the DCA mandated that Paterson raise its sewer fees as one of the condition on the $21 million in transition aid. “I’ve never known them to say, ‘Don’t raise the fees,’” said Jones. “I don’t like exorbitant fees either, but we’re in a difficult situation.’’

Jones said he is checking with the city’s legal department to determine whether the elimination of the sidewalk inspection fee would violate the city’s agreement with the state.

Councilman Kenneth Morris, chairman of the finance committee, said the city should go ahead with the reduction and let the state weigh in afterwards. “If the DCA has a problem with it they can tell us they have a problem with it, and we can tell the taxpayers that it's the state of New Jersey that wants you to pay $500, not the City of Paterson.''

Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the DCA, said the sidewalk inspection fees are not come under the city’s transition aid agreement with the state.

Paterson’s $500 maximum fee for sidewalk repair inspections dates back to 2006, Coke said. At the time, most of the inspections were being handled by the city’s engineering contractor and the fee was designed to cover the payments to the consultant, officials said.

McKoy said times have changed in Paterson and he asserted that city employees are handling a growing share of the inspections. To continue charging a $500 maximum fee under those circumstances is not fair, he argued. None of the other neighboring towns charges so much, he said.

But Coke argued that comparing Paterson to small towns wasn’t fair. He said the city’s fees should be weighed against those imposed in Newark and Jersey City.

Newark’s sidewalk fee schedule does not include a separate fee for inspections. Its fees are based on various components of work, including extra charges for curb cuts and driveway cuts. For example, in Newark, the fee for the repair on more than 250 square feet of sidewalk, including a curb and sidewalk cut would cost between $400 and $450, according to Newark’s fee schedule.

While city officials debate the fee question, Marion Joynes’ sidewalk remains un-repaired. “It’s safe, you can walk over it,’’ she said. “It’s just an eyesore. Grass here. Patches there. I wanted to clean it up and make it look nice.’’

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