Pothole Payouts, A FOX 17 Special Report

Posted at 10:43 PM, May 15, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-15 22:43:51-04

WEST MICHIGAN — They’ve been forming all winter, and now that spring is here, a new crop of potholes has popped up that can put a dent in your commute and your wallet.

With city budgets tight and the disappearance of state funding for roads locally, pothole numbers are on the rise due to aging streets.

West Michigan cities have paid drivers thousands of dollars for damages to their cars from potholes in the past, but it’s not so easy to make a claim and get paid for the damage.

“The roads here are so bad,” said David Wilstermann, a Grand Rapids resident. “We were just driving along Robinson and hit this massive pothole and got flat a tire on the right side.”

He’s proof that potholes can create a hole in your wallet after hitting a large depression on Robinson Road in Grand Rapids.

It took out the tire on his Mini Cooper in March, 2012 and he was suddenly hit with a $150 repair bill.

Then he filed a claim with the city to recoup the costs, which it initially denied.

A letter from Claims Administrative Analyst Susan Kramer stated that the city wasn’t responsible because it wasn’t proven,  “a dangerous defect existed.”

The letter went on to say, “In order for the City to be held responsible, we must have had prior notice and then failed to respond.”

Wilstermann decided to fight. “I appealed that saying it was filled with gravel, so it appeared someone had knowledge of it,” he said.

He took a picture of his shoe inside the pothole to show just how big it was.

He responded in a letter, saying, “How can a pothole of this size with apparent prior fill not be one that the city had prior knowledge of?”

The city reviewed the evidence from previous work orders showing complaints from the same area and finally gave him the check for around $150.

Since 2003, the city of Grand Rapids shelled out more than $46,800 for pothole damage to people’s cars.

However, payouts from the city are still rare.

We poured through the data and discovered in the last ten years that Grand Rapids reimbursed 166 drivers out of 557 that filed claims or 30%.

Out of eight claims filed in 2012, only Wilstermann’s claim was paid out.

City Public Services Director James Hurt admits that Wilstermann is lucky.

“Well, there’s a process to go through they have to be reviewed and some are submitted,” said Hurt “The city has under the statute of the state of Michigan, we have up to 30 days to be able to repair a pothole.”

FOX 17 checked with other cities to see how much money was being paid out in damages and it was much less.

In Kalamazoo over the past nine years, the city only paid out around $700, but only in the year of 2011.

The other claims that were filed from 2004 through 2012 were denied.

In Holland, the biggest payout years were 2005 and 2008 but those claims were at only around $250 each.

Back in Grand Rapids, if you look at the data, the number of claims paid out has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.

In 2003, the city paid out 35% of driver’s claims. You can see how the percentages fluctuate, hitting a peak in 2008 of 38%.

Then in 2010, there was a sudden drop to 0% and Grand Rapids didn’t pay out anything and payments in following years were also drastically lower.

Hurt didn’t have an answer for the recent decline, although he did explain the spike in 2008, when Grand Rapids sent out 106 checks to drivers totaling more than $27,000.

“In 2008, we had a significant you know precipitation year, it was the snowiest year on record, over 100 inches of snow,” said Hurt. “When you have so much snow and you have a significant amount of precipitation into the ground, you have the freeze thaw cycles that pops that asphalt out,” said Hurt.

Passion Templeton of Kentwood received nearly $1,000 in 2008 after she hit a chunk of concrete, breaking the axle on her car on Kalamazoo Street.

The people who see most of the damage first-hand are at area repair businesses such as Discount Tire on 44th Street.

“It’s like a blood blister. If you squeeze it together, it creates a big bubble. Then it will start getting bigger and will usually blow out,” said John Fitzgerald, store manager.

Repairs can easily hit the $1,000 mark.

“They cannot only do damage to the wheel and the tire, but also to suspension parts, so it’s very important you pay attention to what’s going on.”

Paying attention also means you should report potholes to the city so that they can be repaired.

You can do that by downloading the city’s free 311 application on your smart phone.

The app provides a convenient way to take a picture of the pothole and send a description to the city.

Although Wilstermann had to fight for his claim, he felt the city was professional.

“The city was really cordial and nice about all of it,” said Wilstermann.

As luck would have it, he hit two more potholes in 2013, one again on Robinson Road in Grand Rapids and was back at the repair shop in the spring.

He said it would be comical if it wasn’t so expensive.

“Two flat tires in two years, never had one before that,” said Wilstermann.

If you do hit a pothole and you feel you have a claim in Grand Rapids, you can get the forms you need to fill out on the city’s website.

You can find the damage complaint forms under the Grand Rapid’s human resource page at the link below:

Again, the criteria for a payout is that the city knew about the pothole, and wasn’t able to repair it within 30 days.

To get a pothole repaired in Grand Rapids without the city’s phone app, head to the link below: