Summer officially begins on June 21, but Minneapolis leaders are concerned with improving the conditions of the city's nearly 2,000 miles of sidewalks for the coming winter.
Most households inspected by the city during a pilot program last winter shoveled their sidewalks within 24 hours of a snowstorm, according a report presented to a City Council committee Tuesday. But council members and some pedestrians say the city still has work to do for sidewalks to remain clear of snow and ice during the season.
"There is a real human cost to this," Council Member Andrew Johnson said during Tuesday's meeting. "It has a huge impact on quality of life for a city that essentially half the year has snow or cold weather."
Last winter, in order to rely less on vigilant neighbors, the city sent inspectors to look for households that failed to shovel their sidewalks after snow fell, as required by city ordinance.
Inspectors visited about 27% of the city across seven snowfalls, according to the report. On average, they found that 96% of properties had shoveled their sidewalks in time, with relatively little disparity across the city.
City contractors cleared the sidewalks of 558 households that received a notice of violation from inspectors, according to the report. The city has assessed property owners $169,525 for removing snow this year, a figure that will likely drop as people continue to repay the city.
Having deemed the pilot successful, the city will double the amount of ground covered by inspectors next season, said Lisa Cerney, deputy director of Public Works.
"The more information we have … will inform our next steps and future opportunities to make improvements and get to 100% compliance," she said.
Council members supported the inspections but questioned the level of compliance, saying that if just one property doesn't shovel, the entire block becomes difficult to navigate. Slippery snow or ice, they said, is dangerous to pedestrians and may keep residents who are elderly or have disabilities from leaving the house.
Inaccurate smartphone app
They also raised concerns about the smartphone app that residents use to report uncleared sidewalks and other 311 complaints. The app's maps are not synchronized with the city's own parcel system, leading to notices of violation being sent to the wrong addresses, according to a report presented to another council committee Monday.
City staff recommended suspending use of the app until its accuracy could be improved, and Council Member Linea Palmisano called for a work group to look at ways to fine-tune the system.
Walkability advocates, meanwhile, urged the City Council to spend more on efforts to keep sidewalks clear.
Scott Engel, executive coordinator of the South Uptown Neighborhood Association, is blind and has for years pushed the city to improve shoveling enforcement. The nearly perfect compliance rate did not represent his experience last winter, he said, with snow mounting on sidewalks and curb corners over time.
"If anybody thought last winter was better than other winters, they need to have their head examined," he said.
Ashwat Narayanan, executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, said the high compliance rate becomes "meaningless" if it is not tied to anecdotal evidence.
"Even if there is some level of compliance, it doesn't mean that that strip of sidewalk necessarily becomes easy or comfortable for everyone in the city to be able to walk through," he said.
In addition to expanding inspections, the city will also augment its list of organizations that residents can contact to shovel their sidewalks. Right now, all the groups listed are booked beyond capacity, Cerney said.
One of the nonprofit organizations, Senior Community Services, had about 40 workers and volunteers shovel up to 400 properties around Hennepin County last season. The demand for snow removal is so high that their customer list is full before the winter even starts, said program director Jon Burkhow.
"We all run into the logistical challenges of trying to sort it out and get the manpower," he said. "We have to keep trying different things because there will probably be more and more people that are going to be needing help."