The last thing you expect to see in the dog days of August is a bunch of Minnesotans waving snow shovels.
But that was the sight greeting the St. Louis Park City Council earlier this week, as a group of residents gathered at City Hall demanding that the city plow their sidewalks.
The city’s reply: Shovel it.
The request by residents, many of them senior citizens, for sidewalk snow removal raised questions about the use of public resources and highlighted the problems posed by an aging suburban population throughout the Twin Cities.
Like many cities in the metro area, St. Louis Park plows certain key sidewalks, mostly along major roads and around schools, parks and other public places. That amounts to 48 miles of city-plowed sidewalks, or about 45 percent of the city’s total.
The people waving shovels this week live in the other 55 percent.
“It seems to us that this is unfair and inequitable, particularly for the elderly, the handicapped and those who are winter travelers,” said Dale Anderson, 71, who lives in the same St. Louis Park house he grew up in.
“Since the winter of 1951 I have been the primary shoveler of my sidewalk,” Anderson said. “I have worn out more shovels and snowblowers than I can tell you. And there comes a time when enough is enough.”
Watching city crews clear nearby sidewalks while he shovels, Anderson said, “makes the rest of us second-class chumps.”
There’s no consistency to sidewalk snow removal in the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, property owners are responsible, no questions asked. But a surprising number of cities, including Bloomington and Coon Rapids, use city crews to clear all sidewalks.
The rest have a hybrid policy similar to St. Louis Park’s: City crews clear sidewalks along major roads and around public places, and homeowners off the beaten path do their own shoveling.
“Snow is one of those subjects that, quite frankly, you can’t please everybody,” said Jerrod Brunelle, parks and forestry manager in Plymouth, which has a hybrid policy. “If we plowed the whole city it wouldn’t be efficient, and people would wonder why we’re spending taxpayer dollars on that. Trying to find middle ground is hard.”
There wasn’t much middle ground Monday as St. Louis Park council members discussed the issue. They expressed concern over the cost of adding 60 more miles of sidewalks to the city’s plowing schedule. They acknowledged that aging residents face a special burden in keeping their sidewalks clean, but suggested that the city could explore partnering with community groups like the Boy Scouts to offer shoveling help to those who need it.
“Obviously, the people here would like to see us plow everything,” said Mayor Jake Spano. “We don’t see that yet.”
Council Member Sue Sanger countered that the hybrid policy is fundamentally unfair.
“Sidewalks are public infrastructure. They are for everybody’s benefit,” she said. “If we’re not going to do everybody, then let’s not do anybody.”
The shovel squad of residents, about 25 in all, left the meeting disappointed that a majority of council members spoke against their proposal. But they vowed to continue the fight.
Eloise Pierce will turn 92 next month and has lived in the same house since 1947. She had a warning for the council members.
“All I know is that they’ll all grow old,” Pierce said. “And you can’t change the weather.”