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Crumbling Sidewalks, Roads Mean Costly Suits

Liability: Such payouts represent nearly half of the money in all city lawsuits last year. Officials look for ways to speed up infrastructure repairs.

January 24, 1999|PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deferred maintenance of Los Angeles streets, sidewalks, sewer lines and water pipes cost taxpayers more than $22 million last year for injuries and property damage, records show.

Whether it was $4.5 million paid to Bel-Air residents for a landslide caused by a cracked road or $3.6 million paid for trip-and-fall cases, the city is paying for what some contend is the neglect of a badly deteriorating infrastructure.

Solutions "have been deferred and deferred and deferred so the problem becomes too big to deal with at one time," said Councilwoman Laura Chick.

The judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging poor maintenance eclipsed the $10 million paid out in 1998 in litigation involving the Police Department, and represented nearly half of the $47 million paid out by the city last year in all lawsuits, officials said.

Some charge that a mind set has developed among city leaders that it is easier to pay a lesser amount in legal settlements than it is to bite the bullet and tackle the $7-billion backlog of street, sidewalk and pipe repairs.

"It's so expensive," City Councilman Mike Feuer said. "If you have a sidewalk repair [bill] that costs $450 million, and you are settling trip-and-fall lawsuits for $2 million a year, from a purely dollars-and-cents standpoint, some in the city have looked at that as something you can continue on as we have been, which I disagree with."

Last week, Feuer met with the city administrative office and chief legislative analyst to begin setting up a task force to come up with a long-term plan for repair and maintenance of city streets, sidewalks and pipelines. He and Chick have called for a 20-year plan for repairing the city's infrastructure.

Chick said that particularly frustrating are the cases in which there is evidence that the city was warned about a broken sidewalk, cracked road or leaking sewer pipe, but took no action.

"I can't think of a worse way to spend preciously needed taxpayer dollars," Chick said.

Even critics acknowledge that it's an awesome job. The city of Los Angeles is responsible for 6,500 miles of streets, 10,000 miles of sidewalks, 7,500 miles of water pipes and 6,500 miles of sewer pipes, some of which are 50 to 100 years old.

Voters in November turned down a $760-million special tax measure for sidewalk repair, but Chick said it was poorly written and presented.

There is a huge backlog of streets in disrepair, said Greg Scott, director of the city Bureau of Street Services.

At the current rate of 150 miles repaved each year, streets would be repaved once every 43 years, Scott said. "The problem is, the average street only lasts 25 years," he said.

Two of the biggest payouts last year involved street conditions, including the $4.5 million paid to residents of Bel-Air after cracks in a street contributed to a landslide.

City Council members voted to pay $3 million during the last two years to residents of a neighborhood in Playa del Rey after homes were damaged when the ground subsided around a 70-year-old sewer pipe, a problem the lawsuit alleged should have been fixed earlier.

"We had a very old sewer line," Assistant City Atty. Patricia Tubert recalled. "It was 50 years old. When it was installed there were air pockets."

Sanitation Bureau officials said the city plans to spend about $1.2 billion during the next 10 years to fix about 20% of the worst sewer lines.

The Department of Water and Power is also struggling to find funds to replace its old pipes, some of which have begun springing leaks, damaging nearby properties.

Chick said the city has failed to properly identify and fund repairs for the worst streets, sidewalks, sewage pipes and water lines, even after receiving complaints.

One example was $700,000 paid last year to a man who was injured when he was hit by a car that had slid out of control on Outpost Drive in 1995. The city attorney concluded that a broken water pipe may have contributed to the accident, as did the "smoothly worn concrete roadway" that was made more slippery by the water.

Chick said engineers later determined that the roadway could have been repaired for $40,000.

"What's so incredibly glaring about this case is that a year and a half after the accident, when the case finally got to us, the necessary repairs and precautions to prevent additional accidents had not been taken," Chick said.

And a strategy that only considers dollars and cents also misses what Chick called "the human tragedy involved, which ranges from death to serious injury."

There is the case of Iraj Eshaghian, 58, who tripped over a sidewalk that city engineers admit was "cracked, buckled and uneven" in Holmby Park. Three years later, he is still not fully recovered from a fractured wrist and other injuries.

"There is a plate in my hand and I can't function the way I did before," said the mortgage broker. "It will always be with me."

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