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LA sidewalks: Councilman's solution to repairs bypasses union workers

The city of Los Angeles has fallen so far behind on sidewalk repairs, it took a lawsuit to get officials to guarantee more than a billion dollars for repairs. It could take years before the work reaches residential areas because the city must still come up with a strategy for which sidewalks to fix first.

But some neighborhoods are already getting their sidewalks fixed. Councilman Bernard Parks has taken an unusual approach to make it happen in his South Los Angeles District. However, his approach might end  after he leaves office at the end of this month.

Parks is spending $2.3 million dollars of his office's  discretionary budget — which is city money with few restrictions — to repair his 8th District's worst sidewalks.

The strategy was born out of frustration after 10 years of trying to get the city to do the work.

"The city funding of sidewalks is so intermittent you can't rely on it, the cost of sidewalks being done by city employees is cost prohibitive, and we found that the complaints never ceased," Parks said.

The city took responsibility for sidewalks buckled by street trees back in the Nixon era in exchange for federal grants that quickly dried up. Long after the money was gone, the number of sidewalk breaks continued to rise up like a slab of concrete under a ficus tree.

So Parks tried something different. His office pays a nonprofit called Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative to contract out the work to local companies.

"We cut our price probably a third to one half by going through the nonprofit," Parks said.

With this tactic, he bypasses the city's unionized workforce.

Parks says it would cost too much in pay and benefits to hire permanent workers to tackle the city's sidewalk repairs backlog, and too much to keep them on staff once the work is done.  Parks prefers this setup because the work goes to local companies who hire and train local workers. The jobs are not permanent, so the outsourced workers do not add to the city's growing pension bill.

Since the first repairs got underway in early 2014, Parks' office has contracted out more than 400 parcels of sidewalks.  Most are residential, paid for by his office's discretionary budget. Some non-residential sidewalks are paid for by the federal Community Development Block Grants over which Parks has discretion.

A dozen houses in near 91st Street and Hoover were getting new sidewalks late last week.  Torres Construction Superintendent Xavier Avila oversaw the repair job.

"We're having grinding of the roots, and forms being placed so we can prepare for tomorrow's placing of the concrete," he said.

Workers earning $35 an hour hammered wood into concrete forms. Laborers earning $28 to $31 per hour did other tasks, like using a hand saw to remove small stubborn roots.  These non-union workers earn what the city calls a prevailing wage - about what state or federal contracts would require workers to be paid.

"Everybody gets paid their proper wage," Avila said.

The nonprofit organization Parks turned to for the project management is the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. Formed with the support of then-Mayor Richard Riordan in 1994 two years after riots tore up Los Angeles, the organization works with communities to envision and construct community improvements, said LANI Executive Director Veronica Hahni.

LANI puts the sidewalk construction contracts out to bid and it polices the contractors to make sure the pay meets the city's prevailing wage standards.

Don Butcher says overgrown ficuses that tipped up sidewalk slabs on 91st Street are doing similar damage across the city.

"These were just the wrong trees, and over the past 15-20 years, they've just gotten horrible," Butcher said. He welcomed the fresh new sidewalks.  "Yes! Yes, it's been a long time coming, but it's finally here."

Parks has signed contracts that will keep the repairs going for several more months, but when that work is done, so is Parks' influence on sidewalk repairs. After 12 years in office, Parks is termed out and leaves office at the end of June.

His successor, Marqueese Harris-Dawson had substantial union support backing his election, endorsed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He said he is undecided about whether to continue outsourcing the repairs when he takes office. He questions whether Parks' strategy pencils out in the long run.

"Even when you take this piecemeal approach, it may be cheaper, it may be faster, but since it's not strategic you will end up in the end spending more money and losing more time than you needed to," he said.

Harris-Dawson says sidewalk repair should be done in coordination with street and sewer repairs to keep costs low for all of them.

Still, the city could adopt Park's outsourcing approach when it begins spending about $31 million dollars a year fixing sidewalks under terms of the lawsuit settlement with disabled residents. The council could also opt to give the job to the city's union workers.

Outside Bret Harte Middle School on Hoover Ave., skateboarder Dreyaun Burnett, 13, has felt the sting of his neighborhood's broken sidewalks.

"Right here, you see the concrete is over-boarded, the whole skateboard flipped over," he said. The fall dislocated his elbow and he was in a cast for several months, he said.

But last week, the repair crew fixed the sidewalks outside his house. The crews paid by Parks' office put his district stamp onto the wet concrete.

"It's like a big eight and then it's a circle and words around," Burnett said.

Those words: Councilman Bernard Parks.

It will be up to the City Council in coming months to decide whether Parks' outsourcing strategy will outlast that stamp in the concrete sidewalks throughout the 8th District.

Nobody really knows the extent of L.A.'s bad sidewalks. Oft-quoted statistics that some large percentage of the city's 11,000 miles of walkways were in poor condition are are not credible, Councilman Paul Krekorian has said, because they were based on a very small sample of sidewalks in an older part of the city. When Los Angeles politicians considered doing an inventory of sidewalks, they balked at the multi-million dollar price tag.

Krekorian and Councilman Joe Buscaino have planned a series of meetings to get the public's input on what priorities the city should set for sidewalk repairs, and who should pay. The first was Tuesday June 23 in the Harbor area.

Tuesday, June 30 @ 6 p.m.
Estelle Van Meter Senior Center
606 E. 76th St., Los Angeles 90001
Tuesday, July 28 @ 6 p.m.
Mar Vista Recreation Center
11430 Woodbine St., Los Angeles 90291
Wednesday, July 29 @ 6 p.m.
Center for Performing Arts
2225 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles 90041
Thursday, July 30, @ 6 p.m.
Van Nuys City Hall
6262 Van Nuys Blvd., Los Angeles 91401