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Spokane officials balk at billing for sidewalk snow clearing

LDS Sister Hunter Andruski, left, and Sister Kassidee Gooch clear the sidewalk and steps for Martha Hess, rear, Feb. 8, 2017, on Carlisle Avenue in Spokane. The city has backed off of plans this snow season that would have billed home owners to clear their sidewalks of snow. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
LDS Sister Hunter Andruski, left, and Sister Kassidee Gooch clear the sidewalk and steps for Martha Hess, rear, Feb. 8, 2017, on Carlisle Avenue in Spokane. The city has backed off of plans this snow season that would have billed home owners to clear their sidewalks of snow. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane property owners who don’t clear the sidewalks of snow won’t see a fee tacked on to their utility bills this season.

The Spokane City Council tabled a legal change proposed late last month that would have allowed city crews to blow or shovel snow from sidewalks at the expense of the home owner, who would have had to pay an $85 fee to help recoup the cost of the work.

“There is no plan currently to be punishing people,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart.

The proposal was part of a suite of changes to the city’s snow removal plan developed in response to last year’s snowfall. The city will still ask residents to park on the odd-numbered side of the street throughout the snow season, which began Wednesday and ends March 15.

But a violation won’t result in a ticket, said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works division.

“There isn’t anything punitive associated with that,” Feist said. “It just gives us the best opportunity to clear your neighborhood. Parking on both sides of the street slows it down, and your neighborhood may not get a very good plow because we have to weave in and out of cars.”

City Councilman Breean Beggs said his colleagues hadn’t yet formally voted on a snow removal plan for this year in part because of concern over the odd-side-of-the-street requirement, which was distributed to home owners with their utility bills this month.

“We wanted them to change their language to make it crystal clear that it’s not a requirement,” Beggs said. “We need to make it clear we’re not going to ticket or tow.”

The city has pledged, as part of its revisions to the snow plow plan this year, to clear the narrow streets in the historic Browne’s Addition Neighborhood more often. Rick Biggerstaff, chairman of the Browne’s Addition Neighborhood Council, said his organization was distributing flyers on windshields to indicate the changes to parking requirements taking effect this winter.

“We try to communicate accurately and realistically,” Biggerstaff said. “Between Nov. 15 and March 15, we should be parking on the odd side. That’s not practical in our neighborhood.”

Biggerstaff said he’s received written assurance from the city that cars parked on the even side of the street will not be ticketed. But the neighborhood organization is making it clear to drivers that if they park on the even side, they risk getting plowed in, and apartment dwellers may not have the tools necessary to dig themselves out again.

“We have a lot of multifamily housing in our neighborhood,” he said. “If you’re living in an apartment, you probably aren’t thinking about a snow shovel.”

Scrapping the plan to charge homeowners for snow removal means the city will once again employ a complaint-based fine system this season. Code enforcement officers may issue fines to residents if multiple warnings to make a sidewalk passable go unheeded.

City officials did not provide the number or amount of fines last year in response to an inquiry Thursday.

Beggs said fining home owners didn’t solve the underlying problem.

“We just want to get it cleared, that’s the point,” he said. “Fining them doesn’t clear it.”

The city would have targeted areas near schools and businesses for enforcement this year. Beggs said there still may be room in next year’s budget to pay for that type of service, but it would be done by existing staff members and would require them to forgo other types of work in their departments.

The cost of such a plan would be around $28,000 for the equipment for one team, not counting labor costs, according to an estimate provided by city staff to council members.

Next year’s budget for the city, put on hold over questions raised by the council about the spending in the public works division, designates a little more than $2.5 million for snow removal efforts, according to a presentation to the panel Thursday afternoon. That includes workers in other city departments manning plows, as well as a $200,000 contribution from the solid waste department, which collects the city’s trash.

Kevin Morrison, a spokesman for Spokane Public Schools, said there were early talks with the city about providing some resources to clear sidewalks around some of the district’s buildings, but the schools understood the limitations of funding for such efforts.

“The reality of it probably comes out of some budgetary concerns, and the sheer manpower necessary to do it,” he said.

Each school’s custodial staff clears the sidewalks on school property, and the district owns 11 plows that clear parking lots for staff, Morrison said.

Beggs said regardless of what the city does this season to address snowpacked sidewalks, there needs to be a greater push for residents to allow passage for children and those with wheelchairs to keep them out of the streets.

“The whole city, we have to come together on it,” he said.