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City snow committee gets no traction

Digging further into winter woes, panel cold to ideas

– Once again, the City Council’s ad hoc Snow Removal Task Force has decided there may be nothing it can do, but it agreed to continue meeting to make sure.

The five-member panel has been meeting to see whether there’s anything that can be done about the problems caused by the city’s record-breaking winter, such as unshoveled sidewalks, snow piled in handicapped parking spaces and streets narrowed by plows unable to clear around parked cars.

Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, was given the task of studying the handicapped parking issue.

“I couldn’t figure out who would enforce it,” he reported. “Nobody wants to – it’s like a hot potato. There’s no law addressing it; … at this point, I don’t see that we can do anything about it unless we write a new law.”

Writing a new law could actually happen – Smith said he will discuss the possibility with City Council attorney Joe Bonahoom.

As for plows unable to properly clear streets because of parked cars, member Geoff Paddock, D-5th, said he’s researching the issue and plans to talk to the city’s Public Works department to investigate the idea of requiring alternate parking during snow events.

The thorniest issue is unshoveled sidewalks, a situation made near impossible to solve by officials’ unwillingness to enforce the law the city already has.

City ordinance requires sidewalks to be clean of snow and ice by 9 a.m. every day; violation can result in a $2,500 fine. But officials said they don’t believe anyone has ever been fined, and no one on the task force is willing to fine anyone.

Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who proposed the task force, said the city can make a case on public safety grounds in areas around schools and downtown.

“Sidewalks near schools are the danger areas,” Jehl said. “In no shape or form am I interested in opening Pandora’s box and doing this through the whole city, but we have a demonstrable safety problem within a block or two of schools.”

But even that idea died when he noted that in his conversations with Neighborhood Code, officials said the only way to collect a fine levied is to provide a service and then place a lien on the property for the cost.

That’s how the city enforces its weed ordinance: Violators are warned and given a set amount of time to mow; after that, city contractors mow and the property owner is billed. Unpaid bills become liens on the property that must be paid before it can be sold.

“The last thing I want to do is to put liens on someone’s property because they didn’t shovel their sidewalks,” Smith said.

But no matter Jehl’s frustration, it became clear that no one was interested in enforcing the law, even when he said it would exempt disabled people, seniors and those with health issues and would apply only to people who had cleared their driveways themselves.

“You’re truly talking about people who have no regard for their community, who are able-bodied but just don’t care,” Jehl said.

Instead, Jehl suggested that city officials work with the Downtown Improvement District in its efforts to keep downtown sidewalks clear. The task force meets again in two weeks.