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The piles of March: Council task force debates how to fix winter

FORT WAYNE -- They knew going in the issue may be impossible to solve, but five City Council members attempted to fix winter anyway.

The Snow Removal Task Force spent 90 minutes Thursday morning debating a snow removal ordinance that has never been enforced in the 40 years it’s been on the books. The two things they agreed on were that they have no desire to enforce it and also to keep discussing it.

“We’re kind of beating our heads against the wall on this,” said Council President Marty Bender, R-at large. “I don’t know how much you can do, but I’m open to suggestions.”

The task force was the brain child of Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who said that, if nothing else, the record-setting winter should be used as an opportunity to see whether there’s anything the city can do better.

The task force’s members agreed that there’s not much better the city could do clearing the streets, but when it comes to residents and businesses clearing sidewalks, there’s a lot that can be done better.

City law says that sidewalks must be clean by 9 a.m. every day; failure to do so can result in a $2,500 fine. But officials said they don’t believe anyone has ever been fined.

“And if we did start fining people, the first place people would be camped out would be in front of my house, fining me,” Jehl said.

Bender said there is no way to enforce the current law.

“We don’t have enough people to enforce it, we don’t have enough money to enforce it, we don’t have enough time to go around and enforce this,” he said.

He also pointed out that it may be illegal under federal discrimination laws to try to enforce it against senior citizens or people with disabilities who are unable to clear their walks.

Bender noted that the city does enforce its weed ordinance, ordering property owners to mow tall grass or have it mowed by the city, which can result in liens against the property.

But none of the five seemed inclined to do the same for snow on sidewalks.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a department of Snow Police,” said Tom Smith, R-1st. “I don’t want to do anything that adds cost.”

At the same time, the problem of impassable sidewalks is real: members said children are forced to walk in the street to get to school or the school bus stop, Citilink riders can’t get to bus stops and people on foot can’t get to stores and businesses.

Currently, the snow removal law is overseen by the city’s Right of Way department. Geoff Paddock, D-5th, said that when the city gets complaints through its 311 system, it sends a letter to property owners asking them to comply with the law.

There are other issues, as well, such as businesses piling snow in handicapped parking spots, what to do about snow on the walkways of bridges, where to put snow downtown and the fact that the current law only covers the front of homes, making those on corner lots responsible for only one side.

“We could go on forever,” Smith said.

The panel agreed to meet again in two weeks.