READ THE FINE PRINT: APPLYING THE 3 PROPOSED CHARTER AMENDMENTS TO THE REAL WORLD!
The proponents of these amendments keep pushing a false narrative that getting a sidewalk (or not) is a simple, straightforward choice. Easy peasy! And they suggest that the costs will be insignificant for Bellaire’s taxpayers. But the Bellaire Engineer’s cost estimates and the Mayor’s blog--both released today--tell a different story. Before we can fully appreciate the cost implications of these amendments and what the Bellaire Engineer’s report states, we must first understand the logistics of how these amendments would work (or try to understand, as they are anything but straightforward). I wish I could condense all of this down into some cute bullet points, but the complexity of the amendments--especially when working in tandem--requires lengthier explanations.
FIRST: Municipalities consolidate sidewalk projects (i.e., blocks) into a set for greater cost efficiencies for a bid. Put differently municipalities like Bellaire do NOT put out bids for one sidewalk job at a time. This unnecessarily adds costs and logistical challenges (which adds even more costs). Like any other industry and product, it’s more cost efficient to bundle several streets together and ask engineering companies to bid on that *set* of sidewalks. Doing so reduces costs in several ways: the price per linear foot of sidewalk is less; the Bellaire engineer’s cost to oversee and manage a single other engineering firm installing a set of sidewalks is less compared to overseeing multiple other firms installing multiple sidewalks at a time; and Bellaire staff costs are less because it requires fewer hours of labor to sort out all of the plans and communication among the engineering firms and residents. Further, Bellaire is able to obtain more reputable, high-quality engineering firms to install sidewalks on a bid for a set of sidewalks compared to a single sidewalk. It’s important to note here that the cost estimates provided by the City today are making an assumption that sidewalk blocks are bundled together for efficient pricing.
SECOND: If streets are removed from the set because they lose majority approval (Prop B), the contract terms are violated and the engineering firm may withdraw. Importantly, this means that no one in the entire set gets a sidewalk. This exact scenario happened in Bellaire in 2018. Because sidewalk jobs are bundled into sets, if multiple sidewalks are removed from the plan, engineering firms will withdraw from the contract--because Bellaire violated its terms by reducing the number of sidewalks originally proposed. While the city may initially get a ballpark estimate showing homeowners’ support for sidewalks on a set of streets, Prop B mandates that official written approval by at least 50% of the homeowners must be obtained *no more than* three months prior to the commencement of such construction. The time frame between the initial ballpark estimate and the official written consent deadline is many months (and could easily be over a year given all that goes into the studies, acquiring engineering contracts, City Council votes, etc). Any manner of instances may tip the scale to below 50% on streets during that time frame, or at least lead to significant delays. For example, multiple residents request design changes; new homeowners bought the house and don’t consent to getting a sidewalk at all; some residents want sidewalks in theory but don’t agree to the timeline because they are personally undergoing home renovations or a pool installation that won’t be complete, or any other reason where people change their minds and no longer consent to a sidewalk at that moment, or they hold up the timeline until their design choices are implemented.
An engineering firm withdrawing from a job due to reduced number of sidewalks is not hyperbole, and actually happened recently in Bellaire. In October 2018, RAC Industries sent a letter stating, “As a result of the sidewalk project’s scope of work being reduced by more than ½, RAC Industries, LLC withdraws its bid. The project was quoted with unit prices based on efficiencies of scale and the unit prices are too low for small volumes.” And then none of the sidewalks in that set ever received a sidewalk. Even worse, if this becomes a pattern, reputable companies will not waste their time bidding on Bellaire jobs at all because we don’t honor our contracts.
THIRD: Rigid time constraints (from both Prop A and Prop B) prevent the addition of more sidewalks to the set, thus nullifying the entire bid. The rigid time constraints mandated by the amendments render it virtually impossible to simply add sidewalks to a set if some others are removed. Prop A mandates that residents receive a certified letter with information on a hydrological study and other details six months prior to the City Council’s consideration of the ordinance for construction for such sidewalk (so 6 months before City Council could vote to add those sidewalks). And Prop B mandates that 50+% of residents on a street have to provide written approval no more than 3 months prior to a sidewalk construction job beginning. The result: no one gets a sidewalk--even streets whose majority consistently wanted one from the outset. After being asked multiple times why they chose a 3 month time limit on written approval before construction begins, they finally explained this week it is because “residents move or list their homes for sales frequently. The 3mo window tries to ensure we’re only dealing with current residents.” But this time constraint serves as a linchpin to ensure the hurdles to meet approval for sidewalks will never happen on the combined set of blocks and no one will get sidewalks.
FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS: Those are some of the logistical complexities of how these amendments would work when applied in the real world, and understanding this helps us fully appreciate the financial burden these amendments will place on Bellaire’s taxpayers based on the Bellaire Engineer’s cost estimates released today. In that report, estimates are provided for each Prop, and the *baseline* of those estimates rests on an assumption that there will be zero modifications to the sidewalk plans initially presented to the residents on each street. Zero. It rests on the assumption that no one will request any design changes for sidewalk placement on their lot. It also rests on the assumption that if a new homeowner has moved in since the initial designs were presented, they will not be putting in new design demands. It also rests on the assumption that there are no modifications on the entire *set* of sidewalks in a bundle that will hold up the whole job (or delay the job to the point Bellaire is violating the contractual terms).
But that’s not the real world. Like any major purchase, you’ve got to read the *fine print* of what the Bellaire Engineer’s report states, and the devil is in the details. Reading that fine print demonstrates that when you apply these amendments, some of the baseline costs will likely be duplicated in a single sidewalk block and continue to accrue for a larger total cost than one sees at first blush. The Bellaire Engineer’s technical report detailing the cost estimates for Prop A states, “There are also potential ‘add-on’ costs and related considerations relative to this proposition when viewed in conjunction with Prop B. There would be the potential for several iterations of design on a lot-by-lot basis necessary in order to achieve the required approval percentage to proceed. In addition, the timing for that approval may run longer than expected and potentially re-trigger some of the date requirements thereby requiring the mailings and coordination efforts to be duplicated for an entire block or on a case-by-case basis. There may also be impacts for additional project development costs relative to the bidding, design, and project approval processes.”
These accrued costs and complexity are reiterated in the Mayor’s blog: “Apparently not contemplated in the propositions, but further complicating any attempt to estimate their fiscal impacts, is the likelihood of having to repeat certain steps of the process. Say the residents of a particular block have indicated their general receptiveness to the idea of a sidewalk (because surely the City would have asked at least informally before proceeding with engineering and design), but once the detailed plans are delivered at least six months prior to formal consideration (Prop A), it becomes a negotiation. The residents would have every right to withhold their consent and demand changes to the plans (and no one should fault them for that), potentially resulting in a prolonged back-and-forth until either 50% approval is achieved (Prop B) or the project is abandoned. In attempting to estimate the anticipated fiscal impacts, it’s impossible to know how much money might be spent on plan revisions, or how many times the process under Prop A, and then Prop B, would have to be restarted, with final consideration pushed six months further out each time.” And more, “Also note that while the six-month deadline under Prop A is tied to the City Council’s final consideration of an ordinance for the construction of a new sidewalk, Prop B would have to be satisfied no more than three months prior to the commencement of the actual construction. Depending on construction schedules—since it’s not like the contractor has their crews lined up and equipment idling outside City Hall the night of the Council meeting—it may not always be possible for them to start within three months. When it’s not, and each time it’s not, Prop B would be triggered once again.”
The fate of a single sidewalk block is tied to the fate of an entire set, and vice versa, because of mandates in the proposed amendments. If instead these were proposed as ordinances (rather than Charter Amendments), City Council would be able to vote to modify the language. But if they are passed as charter amendments, City Council cannot do that. And that is no accident.