After decades of trusting residents to shovel their sidewalks during the winter, and fining them if they don't, the city of Minneapolis has admitted defeat.
This winter, Minneapolis public works will send inspectors across the city to ensure property owners are clearing away snow and ice, as city ordinance requires. Yet this might be the precursor to something far more radical.
The city is considering whether to take responsibility for plowing its nearly 2,000 miles of sidewalks. It could cost as much as $20 million, but would fulfill the goal of making the city more walkable in winter and eliminate the current system, in which uncleared sidewalks can remain a slippery menace for a week or more.
"People have given up because there's so much noncompliance out there," Council Member Andrew Johnson said. "It only takes one person not shoveling on a block to make that block impassable."
The more aggressive approach will start with the first plowable snow. From 5 to 15 inspectors will search for unshoveled sidewalks and send notices of violation to those property owners, said Lisa Cerney, the city's deputy public works director.
"What we're going to do is try to take away the neighbor-telling-on-neighbor approach," Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson said to a neighborhood group last month. "We're going to send our inspectors out and you won't know when we're visiting your neighborhood."
The city will send a letter to all residents by early November informing them of the inspections, Hutcheson said. It will also develop a list of resources for people who can't clear their own sidewalks, such as those who are elderly or disabled, and refine its corner-clearing program.
It can't come too soon for Scott Engel, the executive coordinator of the South Uptown Neighborhood Association. "I've lived in this city since 1992 and it hasn't gotten any better."
Engel, who is blind and uses a cane to walk, said he's pushed for years for the city to improve how snow and ice are removed from sidewalks. Last winter was "a nightmare," he said; there were times when he found himself walking on the street because he couldn't tell the difference.
Although happy that inspections would take some of the responsibility away from neighbors, he still felt the city could do more to speed up the system.
"I feel much more limited," he said of the sidewalks. "I don't want to go places because it's such a challenge to walk."
A city responsibility?
A winter maintenance study released in April proposed the city take over plowing either some or all sidewalks. Suburbs such as Bloomington and Golden Valley already do this, though they have a small fraction of the sidewalks in Minneapolis and St. Paul, neither of which provides that service.
City staff estimates sidewalk clearing would cost $20 million a year for continuous service and up to $6 million a year for major snowfalls only. Both would require about $4.5 million in initial costs and 120 plows.
In a presentation to a City Council committee in October, public works staff recommended against city-run sidewalk plowing for now, saying it was too costly and challenging. Some council members, however, said it deserved further study.
"We've gotten tough, we've gotten proactive. We still have consistent problems every year," Council Member Cam Gordon said during the meeting. "If we really want a walkable city, we have to be able to do about as much ... for the sidewalks as we do for the bike paths and probably for the streets."
The idea comes at a time when some snow removal companies are getting out of the sidewalk business.
Parkway Lawn Service, which has offered sidewalk snow shoveling for more than 25 years, is dropping the service in Minneapolis this year, said office manager Daryl Larson. It's not much of a moneymaker, and he can't find enough workers willing to do it.
"We've been pretty much full in Minneapolis for years," he said Friday. "This year we decided we didn't want to deal with it at all."
He said he has had to turn down 500 requests from Minneapolis in the last two months. And they are not the only ones; other companies dropping the service were sending them their customers, too.
The city taking over, he said, would allow them to focus on other snow clearing services, such as private driveways and walkways.
A lengthy process
Minneapolis has 1,910 miles of sidewalks, which are covered by an average of 52 inches of snow a year, according to the winter maintenance study.
City crews already plow some of those sidewalks, but property owners do most of it. The city requires owners of single-family homes or duplexes to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours after a snowfall. All other property owners, including businesses, have four hours to do so.
Enforcing this rule is up to the public. If someone notices that a segment of sidewalk was not cleared, they have to report it to 311. The city then issues a notice of violation to the property owner.
If the snow or ice is still there after a few days, a contractor is hired by the city to clear it and the property owner is later billed for the work. They can either pay right away or later be assessed by the city.
The process can create an eight-day delay or longer before a sidewalk is cleared, according to the study.
Longfellow resident Tony Drollinger, whose 8-year-old daughter Julia has a severe cognitive disability, often cannot take her around their neighborhood after snowfalls because she uses a wheelchair and neighbors don't do their job, he said.
"They should just enforce it right away," said Drollinger, who has reported unshoveled sidewalks dozens of times. "If it's been a day and somebody hasn't shoveled, send them the ticket."
During the most recent winter, when 78 inches of snow fell, the city made almost 600 assessments for property owners, totaling $123,651, to recover its costs of removing snow and ice. This was more than five times as many assessments as the previous winter, which received only 32 inches of snow.
With some property owners out of town, working odd hours or disabled themselves, Drollinger thinks the city should take over sidewalk clearing.
"I just think it's a basic thing that the city should do given our climate," he said.
Johnson, the council member, said the idea is worth pursuing.
"Even after proactive enforcement, if we can't have consistently clear sidewalks across our city, then we need to seriously look at the city taking responsibility," he said.