I am always grateful for people that are willing to give up their personal time to try to make the community they live in a better place. Whether it’s reviewing the City’s budget for 9 months (God bless them) or studying ways to inspire better sidewalk shoveling, it’s great that people are willing to get involved to come up with homegrown solutions to hometown problems. To be honest I work in local government and I still find it hard to maintain a sense of connection to our State and Federal governments, not due to any philosophical or political differences, but simply due to geographic realities. It’s a 2 1/2 hour drive to our state capital and about 6 hours to our nation’s capital but it’s only 5 minutes to City Hall from anywhere in town. Better yet, you can walk to City Hall. Which is exactly what a group of your neighbors are trying to make sure you can do all year long, even when the northeast Ohio weather isn’t cooperating.
As a backdrop to this it’s important to understand that volunteerism is down all over these days and even well established civic clubs are scrambling to replace the bubble of retiring baby boomers to sustain their numbers, so you can imagine how many people we get when we advertise for interest in serving your community by sitting on a citizens study committee — good luck with that. But thankfully, we are usually able to conscript a few folks that may have mentioned an interest in a particular topic, and that’s pretty much what happened with the City’s Citizen’s Sidewalk Committee.
The Citizen’s Sidewalk Committee may not be big in numbers (I think there’s 3 citizens on the Committee) but they’re an ambitous bunch and they genuinely want to solve an issue that rears its ugly head in a snowbank every winter only to melt away by Spring before any policy changes have the time to actually get acted on. Without the sense of urgency of blocked sidewalks standing in the way of pedestrians the issue seems to lose momentum until the next winter rolls around and the pattern repeats itself.
This Citizens Committee is trying to break that pattern. They’ve been meeting on Monday nights over the last couple of months to talk amongst themselves, and with City staff and even their neighbors, a few of whom have also shown up for the meetings. According to Councilmember Heidi Shaffer who volunteered to lead this grass roots effort, the Committee seems close to making some recommendations for City Council to consider. Below are the notes and minutes from the last meeting that should give you a sense of what’s been discussed and perhaps where the group will end up.
Sidewalk Snow Removal Ad Hoc Committee
February 9, 2009
Conference Call Meeting with Bowling Green Staff in City Manager’s office.
Attending: Heidi Shaffer, Dave Ruller, Troy Loomis, Randy Ruchotzke
Brian Kraft, BG Public Works Director, Rick ___ , BG Planning Director
BG had a complaint-driven policy enforced by code officer for 20 years described as “useless and meaningless”. In recent years there had been many complaints regarding school children’s safety. Brian and Rick developed this program 2 years ago in response to complaints.
Targeted enforcement areas (schools, campus area, high traffic areas).
24 hours after snow stops Rick or Brian go out – alternate start area – to take addresses down that have not cleared walks. If it looks like there was an attempt they do not take it down. (“No grey areas”)
Addresses are referred to private contractor.
Contractor takes photo, clears walk, takes another photo.
Turns in photos for payment from city – $60 flat fee.
Finance department sends out bill – $60 flat fee for all residential.
Bill goes to property owner.
If repeat in year (season) will get a civil citation ($75, $100) plus will be billed for clearing. If not paid in 30 days will go on tax duplicate of property owner.
Commercial properties are cited – civil citations – $75, $100 – no clearing
Several staff can write citations, not just police. Citations on utility bill.
Senior employees run program – no overtime. Work as a team.
No warnings but a big awareness campaign – talked to many groups – “Here it comes, we’re not kidding.”
All $ goes to contractor first time – helps counter “lining pockets” charge.
Use of judgement – will not go out if the snow will melt soon or if another storm is coming. Council backed program throughout the process.Message: city is serious.
Had some nasty emails and letters to editor. No legal pushback.
Enforcement is complaint-basis outside target area. Will do all addresses on street rather than single out.
Same contractor also mows grass. Did not take lowest bidder – did not want to encourage dependence on city.
Opt out – requires note from doctor – sidewalks will be cleared for them by volunteers from High School, sometimes city employees.
“Everyone knows they have to mow their lawn. Shovel the walks!” (BG staff)
Committee Meeting 7 pm
Attending: Andrew Fontanarosa, Dianne Centa, Randy Ruchotzke, Heidi Shaffer, Dave Ruller, Troy Loomis, Brdget Susel, Karl Liske, Rick Fredrick, Lori Dent, Jim Soyars, Sean Kaine
Participants in the Bowling Green meeting were asked for their impressions by Ms. Shaffer.
Mr Ruchotzke reviewed Bowling Green’s policy and procedures. He said one of the most important takeway points was that they said people will complain either way. Which is better: to complain and have the sidewalks clear or the other way?
Mr. Ruller said what he was impressed with was that it worked. It gets the job done in a community that seems like Kent. He said he liked that it did not cost the city much $ and that it was simple.
Mr. Loomis said it was encouraging and seems like a practical approach, espeically the focus on priority areas.
Mr. Ruller said there was an increase in compliance over time. The first year there were 60-72 billings per storm and the 2nd year 20-30 per storm. The best thing was that there were not many repeats and it was close to “revenue neutral”.
Others in attendance asked questions and gave impressions.
Ms. Centa said she liked that age was not an excuse and that doctor’s notes were necessary. She said legal issues can create paralysis – it seems that courts would respect this.
Mr. Ruller said they spent the whole summer selling the program.
Ms. Susel said there is a need to get buy-in at neighborhood level – this is a program for the benefit of the whole community. She said keep it simple.
Mr. Fontanarosa asked about priority areas, who took photos, which sidewalks needed to be cleared, how much snowfall created the need to clear, how clear the sidewalks needed to be, the public response.
Mr. Ruller and Mr. Loomis said that the contractor took photos and the photo evidence kept people from contesting. All sidewalks were supposed to be cleared but the targeted enforcement areas rotated. Mr. Ruchotzke said it was 2 inches of snow or more.
Ms. Shaffer said they used judgement calls regarding whether to enforce, whether an attempt had been made – they weren’t out to get anyone, just get the job done. Mr. Ruller said that despite some complaints, their comment was that it was working.
Ms. Shaffer asked Mr. Loomis to describe his efforts to enforce our ordinance with businesses. Mr. Loomis said he has been to several businesses to ask them to keep the sidewalks clear. He said he pauses when they ask him where he thinks they should put the snow. Mr. Loomis said it is frustrating to try to talk with the owners. He talks with people that are lower level managers who do not have much authority.
Mr. Ruller said that in the past letters have been sent – a kinder, gentler approach. It doesn’t have much teeth and we are kidding ourselves. Our law is kind of hollow and people pick up on that.
Mr. Ruller said Councilman Ferrara suggested the city look into a notification system that would tell the public about snow bans and have a shovel-your-walks request. It could even notify people about leaf collections. Mr. Kaine said a reverse 911 system was effective with the recent Brimfield fire.
Ms. Shaffer asked Mr. Loomis to give his opinion about the current system.
Mr. Loomis said it doesn’t work. He remembers this as an ongoing problem since he was a kid. He said the BG program offers a glimmer of hope.
Mr. Ruchotzke said he lived in a town that fined people for not clearing and he was hired to clear walkways.
Mr. Loomis said a notification system – getting in touch with owners of rentals would be difficult. A note on the door would be more effective. Mr. Ruller said that St. Paul has a notice that can be downloaded from city website – a neighbor- to-neighbor system where you hang it on a doorknob. Ms. Shaffer asked if they also have enforcement. (They do. They will bill for clearing walks.)
Mr. Loomis said Ann Arbor keeps a pile of sand and salt for residents to use. He said that may go well with enforcement effort. He talked about tool program and that insurance does not allow snowblowers.
Mr. Ruller said the city of Kent is proud to be safety-minded and that it troubles the staff that there is no effective role in maintaining clear city sidewalks. He said they are not resisting a greater role for the city but that the challenge is logistics and funds. He said they want to see the problem fixed. Other cities he has worked in devoted more resources. We have to make choices – will we devote money for landscaping or deal with sidewalks. We are proud to put resources into social services.
Mr. Ruller said he likes the BG model because it does what we want without a big upfront investment. Ms. Susel said doing the sidewalks would require the city to buy equipment so the BG model would be easier to implement.
Mr. Ruller said he is sensitive to the issue of people having negative interactions with the city. Kent has a history of bumpy roads – such as street assessments. This creates a higher degree of frustration toward the city than others he has experienced. He said that there is a certain good will gained by people seeing city employees doing things like clearing walks.
Ms. Susel said it would be important to sell the community benefit at PTA meetings to build communication. It should be put out there as a public safety issue. Mr Soyars said he likes the part about student volunteers and thinks that high school kids have community service interests. It is great for everyone.
Mr Ruchotzke asked Mr. Fontanarosa if KSU student groups would be willing to volunteer and Ms. Centa said they are gone for a large chunk of time. Ms. Susel said she could put together grant applications for those who can’t do their own walks. She said there are CDBG grants out there to do people’s driveways such as in Twinsburg and Macedonia .
Mr. Liske said he thinks the targeted enforcement zone idea is smart. School children have to walk on sidewalks, except where there are no sidewalks.
Mr. Kaine said with limited resources is it more important to cear sidewalks or put new sidewalks in? For example, Majors Lane is poorly lit and kids walk to school along it. He said the BG model is good because it doesn’t cost a lot. He said we could go to assessment districts to clear out St. Rts 43 and 59. He said the big problem is the snow mountains.
Ms. Shaffer said that City Council Streets and Sidewalks committee voted to direct the law director to write an ordinance licensing private snow plow operators who work within the city. Mr. Loomis said why not ask businesses who they use. Mr. Ruller said snow plow drivers may not want to list their addresses for competitive reasons.
Ms. Centa asked what the city has been doing to work on the problems of blocking intersections.
Mr. Ruller said they have been doing time studies for snow removal along sidewalks that had snow pushed on them. BG said they plow the snow into the turning lanes temporarily and then offload it. He said Kent’s system isn’t set up to offload snow – although it was done in the downtown. For BG it is a cost of doing business and it makes a difference. But where do you put it?
Mr. Liske said the piles of snow can be hazardous to motorists because they interfere with line of sight.
Mr. Ruller said maybe KSU can help clear sidewalks along Summit St. or at least share costs. Bowling Green U. does clear some sidewalks around the campus. Ms. Shaffer asked committee members for their concluding thoughts.
Ms. Centa said she is trying to digest the ideas. She said a lot of the BG ideas seem worthy. She likes the idea of having people pay if they are not willing to do the work but she said it is not to penalize people. Education is important.Ms. Centa says that people can pay someone to clear their walks if they don’t want to do it themselves.
Mr. Fontanarosa said the legal ramifications still need clearing up. He said KSU does a very good job because it is a priority as there are many pedestrians. If the city made it a priority the BG model would seem to work although it will take time. He said he commends city council for licensing snow plow operators.
Mr. Ruchotzke said he likes the downloadable reminder to hang on people’s doors. He said neighborhood meetings, PTA meetings, etc. will play a big role. He said he appreciates the city manager’s sensitivity to enforcement but all in all he said he loves the BG model, esp. the targeted areas. Public safety should be paramount.
Mr Fontanarosa said that students are gone for break which would make it difficult for renters to be responsible. Mr. Ruchotzke said that BG bills went to owners, not occupants, and that arrangements between tenants and landlords need to be part of the lease.
Mr. Soyars said sidewalks are important to have – not necessarily on both sides of the street. Some areas need to have sidewalks.
Mr. Ruller said we have a bike plan but we don’t have a pedestrian connectivity plan that is mapped out. The problem is assessments because they are an unfriendly approach that might do more harm.
Ms. Dent said that educating people about the need for many to use clear sidewalks is important.
The BG route is not going to happen overnight.
Mr. Liske brought up his idea to share the streets with pedestrians by creating 1-way motor lane/non-motorized lane on some current 2-way streets. He said he tried to push his grandson on a stroller in the street because it was plowed. It would be traffic calming . Cones could serve as dividers.
Mr. Kaine said we need a combination of licensing plow drivers, city continuing to work on ways to keep crosswalks cleared and the BG model for city sidewalks.
Mr. Fredrick said commercial plows should be required to put snow in parking places of businesses.
Next meeting: Feb. 23rd (postponed to March 2).
Some people to talk with:
Chamber of Commerce
Main St. Kent
Coordinators of volunteer programs – high school an d KSU