Sidewalk Service

Houston taxpayers pick up the tab for the sidewalk and driveway at a private residence

Hardly a day goes by that some disgruntled homeowner doesn't call the city Public Works Department and complain of a cracked driveway or sidewalk, or drainage problems that result in pools of water on lawns or pavement every time it rains. Would the city please come out and make repairs?

Unfortunately, the rules are quite clear on the answer: Property owners are responsible for their own sidewalks and driveways, unless of course the city itself was in some way responsible for the problem.

Benny and Donna Rains knew this. So when they wanted to upgrade the driveway in front of their house on Taggart Street last year, they didn't phone City Hall asking for a freebie, but instead hired a contractor to do the work.

Still, the city insisted on making the Rainses jump through various regulatory hoops before the asphalt could be poured. The couple had to obtain the necessary permits and post them in a conspicuous place, and had to get written permission from their neighbor, Sadie Greenman, to have their driveway abut hers, which is contrary to the city's design standards. A couple of inspectors came by to ensure compliance with the City Code. And they were required to install a special drainage device to minimize any flooding impacts. "That cost us 2,500 more dollars," says Donna Rains.

When their driveway was finally complete after more than a month of kowtowing to the authorities, the total bill exceeded $8,000.

Sadie Greenman went a different route. Distressed that her sunken sidewalk turned into a wading pool after a shower, Greenman complained to the city. She blamed her neighbors' new driveway for the drainage buildup, though Rains says the water came from water running on top of Greenman's roof, where it was directed to the front of the house and then flowed onto the sidewalk. "I have this on video," Rains says. "It would fill up in a matter of minutes."

Rains explained this to city workers who dropped by on more than one occasion to investigate Greenman's gripe. She wasn't especially worried that she'd be held liable, having dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" before constructing her driveway. But she and her husband were more than surprised by what followed: On September 3, a crew of workers from Brown & Root arrived and began digging, mixing and pouring. Three days later, they pulled out, leaving Greenman with a sparkling new $4,678 sidewalk and driveway. No permits necessary. No inspections required. And the taxpayers picked up the tab.

Just how Greenman convinced city officials to do what hundreds of other homeowners must do for themselves remains a mystery. Greenman did not return several phone calls from the Press. According to a number of sources, Sheri Hollaway, chief engineer of construction in the Public Works Department's Street and Bridge Division, ordered Brown & Root to do the work, but she referred all questions to new department director Jerry King. "If Mr. King gives me a directive to talk to you, I'd be happy to do that," Hollaway said.

King, who seems genuinely bent on rehabbing the department's reputation as a renegade agency with little accountability, says the city acted on the belief that Greenman had been adversely affected by the new driveway next door. The construction job was flawed, he says, and the inspector never should have passed it. Since the department had issued the permits for the driveway in the first place and then signed off on the job, the city shared responsibility for the problem and took steps to correct it. "In a general way, the city was trying to help," King says.

The department could provide no documentation to back up King's assertions, however, despite promises to do so. And Donna Rains vigorously disputes the claim that her driveway failed to conform to city standards or contributed to the flooding next door. She says she repeatedly shared the evidence to the contrary with investigators, but to no avail. "It's very clear," Rains says. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out what was going on."

King's version of events also doesn't explain why Brown & Root was called in for the fix instead of city crews, which are perfectly capable of doing such work. Apparently at Hollaway's request, Brown & Root borrowed a crew from a street reconstruction project the contractor was doing for the city more than eight miles across town, then billed the work to that project.

This isn't the only time Hollaway has taken it upon herself to bend the rules. She recently approved several stretches of new sidewalk in front of private homes along San Felipe -- even though a street-widening reconstruction project slated for next year will mean that the sidewalk will have to be torn up again.

Not that Hollaway acts without the knowledge of her superiors. The order authorizing payment to Brown & Root for Sadie Greenman's driveway was also signed by Hollaway's boss, acting Street and Bridge Director Mark Kosmoski, and former public works deputy director Buddy Barnes, who recently resigned and took a job in the private sector.

Under Barnes and former director Jimmie Schindewolf, tacking unrelated work onto contracts and then billing it to the city was a common practice, as a recent series of audits coordinated by City Controller Sylvia Garcia has documented. That's not the way the system is supposed to work, and King says that practice won't be tolerated any longer. "We'll get that stopped," says King. "You can count on that."

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