Safe Routes to Schools grant program sparks old debate

One Wapakoneta City Council member is urging his fellow councilors to consider residents’ objections to the installation of sidewalks along five streets in Grandview Estates.

Another councilor points out the work is a city improvement, in the city right-of-way and is paid completely with state and federal funds with no assessments on the property owner.

During Monday’s meeting, councilors heard the first reading of an ordinance to apply for a third round of Safe Routes to Schools grant funding to install sidewalks along parts of Carnation and Laurel drives and Gardenia Avenue.

1st Ward Councilor Jim Neumeier said residents in that area continue to tell him they object to the plan to install sidewalks in their neighborhood behind Grandview Plaza.

“The point they keep making to me is they are adamant that they don’t want the sidewalks installed,” Neumeier said. “They have given us plenty of input over the last two or three years. I agree the quasi-petition is not a legal petition and that you may not accept because it was not in a legal form, but it was what they wanted.”

He also questioned if the ordinance stipulated the proposed project would be paid 100 percent by the grant or did the city have to pay.

Several councilors explained the grant cover 100 percent up to the maximum of the grant amount and if the grant amount was exceeded it was then the city’s responsibility to pay.

In the past, the federal Safe Routes to Schools grant provided funds to cover 100 percent of the proposed project. Now the federal grant’s share has been reduced to 80 percent, but the state of Ohio picked up the remaining 20 percent so the city is still funded 100 percent for the project. The city is seeking the grant’s maximum annual amount of $500,000.

Councilor-at-large Tom Finkelmeier Jr. voiced his stance in support of sidewalks and public safety.

“The point is not lost on me that there are some people opposed to sidewalks whether they are assessed or not, but I am as dedicated to putting in sidewalks, as I ever was, because I believe they are a safety improvement,” Finkelmeier said. “This is a public safety benefit. We are putting a public improvement in the public right-of-way. I don’t see this as an aesthetic improvement so it is not up for debate in my opinion.”

Finkelmeier, who serves on Streets, Alleys and Sidewalks Committee with Neumeier, authored an ordinance a couple of years ago regarding sidewalk installation throughout the city but he withdrew the ordinance from consideration when Safety Routes to Schools grants became available. The 100 percent grant required no assessments on property owners.

“I know the issue of installing sidewalks where they were not previously required has been contentious, and we had a former sidewalk ordinance that was controversial, in part, because of its assessment component,” Finkelmeier said. “I was happy to repeal that and I consider it one of my proudest achievements in public service that I was able to participate in bringing nearly $1 million and 100 percent paid sidewalks to Wapakoneta — adding no burden to the property owners.”

The city has been awarded $950,000 through two phases of the Safe Routes to School grant program.

Councilor-at-large Dan Graf, who chairs the Streets, Alleys and Sidewalks Committee, also offered his position on the issue.

“I really believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to install sidewalks where now the city believes they should have always been installed which is in every subdivision in Wapak,” Graf said, explaining this is not costing local residents nor the city any money. “This is a way to correct past deviations and to bring areas into compliance for not only the present owners but for future owners of those properties along those streets.

“This is a way of looking forward, to enhancing those areas and the safety of those areas,” he said.

Mayor Rodney Metz explained state officials conducted surveys with Wapakoneta City Schools students and with school and city administrators and evaluated pedestrian traffic flows in the city. State officials then determined the routes based on the information.

He advised city councilors to listen to the residents, but the grant has been applied for and the routes identified and determined by the state in multiple phases. The city has completed the first two phases through Bramblewood Estates and along Redskin Trail.

Metz welcomed the state and federal funds coming into the city.

“We are close to $1.5 million if we are awarded the full amount this round and that is money the city did not have to cut costs to come up with or to assess property owners to complete,” Metz said. “It is a nice benefit to the city to have the incoming funds to do a project of this magnitude.”