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Critics fear sidewalk repair proposal will burden nonprofits, churches

 Critics fear sidewalk repair proposal will burden nonprofits, churches
Patricia Strong-Fargas, the senior pastor at Mt. Salem-New Wave Fellowship Church in South L.A., has repeatedly complained to the city about trees growing outside the church, which have caused damage to its foundation and plumbing. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Twin parkway trees towering over Mt. Salem-New Wave Fellowship Church, a single-story, store-front ministry on South Los Angeles' Central Avenue, shade parishioners from the punishing summer sun.

But under a proposal now being debated at City Hall, the lush side-by-side ficuses could pose a financial threat to the 65-member congregation, which includes a mix of seniors and blue-collar families of modest means.

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The tree roots have lifted the sidewalk on each side of the church's front door and snaked under the building, rippling the floor and repeatedly fouling the plumbing.

Last summer, church social director Cindy Munesato tripped and fell on the tilted walkway as she was returning from talking to neighbors.

"If you are disabled, it's very hard to navigate," said Munesato, who walks with a cane.

A tree-removal company has estimated that it will cost more than $4,000 to remove the trees and stumps, a daunting fee, church leaders say.

But churches like Mt. Salem may be under pressure to spend that or more if a recommendation from one of the city's top budget advisors is adopted. Churches and nonprofit groups would be required, within a year of being cited by the public works department, to complete repairs to adjacent sidewalks damaged by city trees.

"They want us to fix a sidewalk damaged by a tree that they planted?" said Patricia Strong-Fargas, senior pastor of Mt. Salem. "How are you going to take money from a church that is there to serve the public?"

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana's proposal, released earlier this year, calls for all commercial property owners to fund such repairs, part of a long-term strategy to fix a massive backlog of thousands of miles of broken sidewalks.

The plan defines commercial properties as those requiring private, contracted trash pickup, as opposed to the city-run refuse collection service that picks up most residential trash. Churches like Mt. Salem fall in the commercial category.

Sidewalks next to houses and smaller residential properties would be fully rebuilt one time at city expense — with trees removed where warranted — after which responsibility for upkeep would shift to property owners.

The recommendations will be debated this year as the City Council decides how to proceed with a $1.4-billion, 30-year sidewalk repair program, which is being mandated under a landmark legal settlement with attorneys for the disabled.

As city officials embark on the new effort to better manage more than 10,000 miles of sidewalks, they do not know how many miles need repair, where all the damage is located and which spots should be fixed first, a Times review found.

The analysis showed no repairs were made in 40% of roughly 19,000 resident requests for sidewalk fixes received over the last five years.

Through a spokeswoman, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he welcomes feedback from landowners, but did not address the question of how commercial property should be defined or churches and nonprofits treated in terms of required repairs.

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The tree-root problems have plagued Mt. Salem for years. In 2012, Strong-Fargas filed a claim against the city for damages to the church's foundation and pipes. It was denied. Since then, she has repeatedly complained to the city and South L.A. Councilman Curren Price.

Mt. Salem received some good news last week — Price met with church leaders and said he would add the broken walkway to a priority list of 20 sidewalks in his district that need repairs.

"At least I got a promise," Strong-Fargas said. "I know it's going to take more work, but every month it goes on, the more damage it's causing."

Many nonprofits in Los Angeles rent their space and probably wouldn't be affected by Santana's proposal, said Nancy Berlin, policy director for the California Assn. of Nonprofits.

But those that own their parcels, like the Salvation Army, could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in sidewalk repairs and tree removal at their locations in the city. One, the Salvation Army's Los Angeles Day Care Center in downtown, is surrounded by undulating sidewalk slabs.

Rebuilding those walkways would be "a substantial cost to us because that sidewalk is in really bad shape," said Robert Brennan, spokesman for the Salvation Army's Southern California Division. "Whatever we have to allocate on fixing sidewalks is money we won't have for the social services we do."

At a series of community meetings this summer, residents have voiced concerns and questions about the proposal. How to define commercial properties financially responsible for repairs is "one of the many challenging issues we heard about," said Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the city's budget committee.

If council members exempt nonprofits and churches from the commercial designation, it would reduce the number of neighborhood walkways fixed each year, Santana said.

Another option, he said, would be to place city liens on commercial properties that failed to make repairs as ordered. The liens would cover the cost of city-funded repairs to the sidewalks, and be paid off when properties were sold.

Santana argues that churches like Mt. Salem already have an obligation to maintain accessible sidewalks under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And California law states that property owners are responsible for fixing sidewalks.

But the city hasn't enforced those state or federal requirements and, under a policy adopted by the City Council in the 1970s, took on responsibility for repairing damage caused by city trees.

Even as the backlog of repairs has grown significantly, officials have been hesitant to shift the burden back to property owners or back local tax increases to pay for upkeep. For several years during the recession, no city money was earmarked for sidewalk rebuilding, even of the most severely lifted and twisted walkways that have become largely impassable to the disabled and elderly.

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