Next time you're heaving snow from your sidewalk, consider this (or maybe not): If you lived in Shoreview, Bloomington, Golden Valley or a handful of other metro suburbs, the city would do it for you.

That's just how it's been done for years, in many cases, and city officials say the service will continue, despite shrinking budgets and weather strains like the hellacious snow and ice the metro area has gotten over the past month.

Part of that is a commitment to safety and walkability, and part of it's about maintaining a service residents have come to expect.

Mark Maloney, Shoreview's public works director, is vice president of the Minnesota Public Works Association. When sidewalk snow removal was referred to as an "amenity" in a recent conversation, he begged to differ. He noted that the miles of trails and sidewalks in his city have increased by 25 percent during his 15-year tenure and that surveys have shown that residents value well-maintained sidewalks and trails they can use to get around without getting into their cars.

"In this community, it is not an amenity; in this community [sidewalks] are something that is considered essential for quality of life," he said.

So if residential service is considered essential in Shoreview, why isn't it offered in Minneapolis or St. Paul, where homeowners must clear their own sidewalks? For starters, consider scale. In Minneapolis, 2,000 miles of sidewalks line both sides of almost every city street, while in St. Paul the total is 1,007. Shoreview has 65 miles, most of it along major thoroughfares, not residential areas. In the core cities, the public works departments do clear sidewalks around municipal properties.

While Shoreview's sidewalk snow-removal budget is $55,000 a year, and Bloomington's is $150,000 for 250 sidewalk miles, comprehensive sidewalk clearing would pile about $3 million onto Minneapolis' $7 million snow-removal budget, said Mike Kennedy, the city's director of transportation, maintenance and repair. Even so, service would take 5 to 10 days, compared with the current everybody-chips-in system that is meant to result in relatively clear sidewalks within 24 hours after snow's end.

"It's about cost and livability," Kennedy said, "and a lot of it is about culture. The culture in Minneapolis has always been that way, that residents are responsible for their sidewalks. So they have always done it."

Cities that clear residential sidewalks generally adhere to a system that gives priority to roads, walk-to-school routes, handicap access and major thoroughfares ahead of neighborhood sidewalks. Normally, those sidewalks are cleared the day after a snowfall, although that has proved difficult with the bonded-on ice that formed over the holidays.

If someone falls on a city-maintained sidewalk, who is liable?

Maloney said he interprets state statute to say that cities are liable for what they are able to do with the resources they have.

"If we are limited in the amount that we can do or the time it takes to do it by our resources, but we're doing our job consistently and/or according to our adopted policies and priorities, then we're doing the best we can do," he said.

In Bloomington, sidewalk maintenance by the city is the way things have been done for 30 years. Also, Assistant Maintenance Superintendent Paul Edwardson said, in an aging community, public safety shouldn't depend on any resident's ability to get out and muck snow. Besides, he added that the cost is a small piece of the city's budget.

"If we could save residents $25 or $50 a year off their tax bill, that would speak very loud," he said. "Most people in this [economic] climate, understand cutting of services, but [to pay] only $3 a year for someone to come by every time it snows to clear snow off the walk? To take that service away would be, 'Wow, why are you doing that?' "

Eden Prairie backs off

In the fall of 2007, Eden Prairie did back away from a longtime practice of clearing all sidewalks and trails, in order to focus staff and equipment on 109 miles of major roads and school routes.

"We didn't really change how much we do from years past," said Gene Dietz, the city's director of public works. "What we were trying to do is get a better pedestrian system out of the process."

Homeowners now are responsible for clearing 72 miles of sidewalks and trails in Eden Prairie, although enforcement is complaint driven. If you live on a cul-de-sac or an area where nobody walks, it may not be an issue.

"We're looking for a happy medium," Dietz said. "What needs to be done has some attention given to it, but we're not going to make people do something nobody cares about."

Folks definitely care about their sidewalks in Bloomington. Edwardson said his phone was ringing last week with complaints from residents who wanted their sidewalks cleared faster or better, despite the "perfect worst storm" the metro experienced. He said he hasn't seen the likes of the Christmas cocktail of snow, rain and subzero temperatures since the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the lousy conditions meant a job that should have taken a couple of days stretched out for a couple of weeks.

"People haven't put the pieces together, and we're getting calls like crazy," he said. "I just scratch my head, but we keep going out and making it happen."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409