George McCauley believes Helena's revised sidewalk snow-removal policy needs a little more revision.
McCauley serves on the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act committee, and when it meets in May he plans to request that it ask the city commission to consider an alternative to the policy’s citizen-driven complaint process.
Part of the city’s focus on accessibility has been ensuring sidewalks, which are the responsibility of the property owner, are cleared of snow and ice.
Helena’s regulation on clearing sidewalks of snow and ice was modified in 2015 to allow the city to act if property owners didn’t.
The owners of residential properties have 24 hours to clear or sand their sidewalks after snow stops falling.
Business owners in the B-2 and B-3 districts have less time and can be required to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice within four hours after snow stops falling.
“I believe that in general we have a much better snow removal policy,” McCauley said.
He also makes clear that he has no complaint with the work of the city’s single person who investigates reports that property owners aren’t shoveling their sidewalks.
What McCauley doesn’t like is that people who report properties where snow and ice aren’t removed from sidewalks must sign their names to those complaints.
“It’s not the best way to get as much compliance as we had hoped for,” he said after the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act advisory committee met recently.
“I’ve spoken to many people on how they feel about the complaint-driven policy and its enforcement. And they, like me, are unwilling to turn their neighbor in,” McCauley said.
There was discussion by the city commission and at meetings leading up to the revised ordinance on the decision to rely on citizen complaints for enforcement, City Manager Ron Alles said.
Citizen complaints would identify the areas where people walked and had concerns with snow and ice on sidewalks, he continued and added that relying on people to file complaints meant far more people would be helping ensure sidewalks were cleared.
“I think it’s working fairly well. It’s not perfect,” Alles said.
City staff tries to take into account disabilities that can affect someone’s ability to clear a sidewalk of snow and ice and when people are out of town during snow storms, he said but noted that property owners who refuse to clear their sidewalks are cited.
“I think most folks did their level best to meet the requirement and get their sidewalks shoveled.”
If the city were to hire more staff to enforce the city’s policy and clear sidewalks that would mean spending more taxpayer money for that purpose, Alles said.
While the revised ordinance is in its second year, this was also the snowiest winter for Helena in 25 years. The National Weather Service recorded 51 inches this winter and the most since the 61 inches during the winter of 1992-93. Average snowfall in Helena is 38.1 inches.
According to data on citizen complaints regarding snow and sidewalks, the city had 35 snow events from December through March. With the snow came 165 complaints regarding 208 locations.
Inspections based on those complaints found that 61 locations had been cleared of snow and ice while 10 locations had unique circumstances due to drainage that affected the entire city block.
The property owners had placed sand on the icy areas but it was washed away daily, the city data revealed. Five complaints involved duplicates and seven involved city rights-of-way where snow had been piled.
Of the 124 locations that were found to be in violation of the city ordinance, 67 property owners received courtesy notices to advise them that they needed to clear their sidewalks.
Contractors were asked to clear sidewalks for 57 properties and 36 were cleared.
The contractor responsible for clearing the other 21 sidewalks had equipment problems and those sidewalks weren’t cleared. The city also wasn’t notified that of the problem, said Greta Dige, the city’s code enforcement officer.
Of the 36 sidewalks that were cleared of snow and ice by contractors, the owners of 34 of those properties were sent bills, Dige said and explained the city didn’t receive the required photographic documentation allowing it to bill the owners of the remaining two properties.
The owners of 13 properties appealed the cost of clearing their sidewalks and 10 of the appeals were denied and three were granted, according to city data.
Property owners were charged either a $50 civil penalty or more if the cost, based on 18-cents per square foot of sidewalk, exceeded the civil penalty, Dige said.
Civil penalties amounting to $953 have been assessed and $500 has been collected, according to city data.
Contractors were paid 15 cents per square foot of sidewalk, and the city spent nearly $2,299 for snow removal. Property owners whose snow removal cost more than the civil penalty were billed $2,075 and have paid the city $786.
McCauley’s concern with icy sidewalks prompted him to email the commission on Feb. 9.
He wrote to say that 1½ years of work went into revising the ordinance. He included many of the 129 photos he took of properties within a 20-minute walk of his home where snow had not been removed from sidewalks.
“I travel these routes almost every day and these images show the regular lack of attention to shoveling, not a situation where the property owner just had not yet shoveled,” he wrote in his email. “Many of these properties had the sidewalk cleared by a 4 wheeler but those had huge berms at the end of the walk leaving the corners impassable.”
“Early on in the discussions about revamping our policy I and others strongly suggested that the new policy be one of citywide code enforcement as opposed to the ineffective complaint-driven method.”
“The current complaint-driven process makes our citizens police officers and most of us just will not turn in our friends," he added. "That process should be borne by the city.”
“Most of the discussions I have had with people about the process came to the same conclusion – people do not want to be charged with policing. I submit that the current process does not result in compliance and we need additional help with identifying violators and enforcement,” his email stated.