In a debate as perennial as winter, St. Louis Park Council members are divided on whether the city should clear all sidewalks.

St. Louis Park currently removes snow and sweeps nearly half of the city sidewalks while it requires property owners to clear the rest. Some residents have perpetually declared the system unfair for those whose sidewalks are not cleared by the city, once staging a protest at City Hall with shovels in hand.

Costs have been the main sticking point. While a city staff report estimated the cost of clearing snow on the existing routes the city handles at between $40,000 and $80,000 each year, a city staff estimate projected the cost at $510,000 to add the additional sidewalks with full-time staff.

Most of that cost would be from the cost of hiring new maintenance employees to work full time throughout the year, at $85,000 per employee. A union contract limits the city’s use of equipment with seasonal or part-time staff and limits the number of hours part-time employees can work. Additionally, the city has had difficulty in filling current part-time positions, according to the report.

If hiring year-around, full-time staff, the report estimated the annual costs at $425,000 for staff plus an estimated annual cost of $85,000 for five new snow removal machines.

In 2018, a contractor provided an estimate of $1.2 million to clear the remaining sidewalk system, likely due to the upfront investment and unpredictability of snow events, the report said.

It also pointed to the existence of narrow sidewalks less than 4 feet in width that the city could not clear with its current equipment. While a small percentage of sidewalks, the report put the cost at expanding them at more than $1.5 million. The report notes the city also has sidewalks that end mid-block or do not have curb drops making it challenging for machines to access them.

The report argued residents can clear sidewalks better than city staff. City equipment does not clean sidewalks down to the pavement, and the snow left behind becomes packed, leading to icy sidewalks when it thaws and freezes again, it says.

Council debate

Councilmember Larry Kraft questioned the high-cost estimate for expanding snow clearing during a debate last month. He suggested that the city could cut costs if it skipped the narrow sidewalks, allowed city staff more time for clearing and rethought hiring in the next year.

Although the St. Louis Park City Council has said it prioritizes walking and bicycling over driving, Councilmember Margaret Rog said of the city’s approach to clearing snow, “It strikes me actually as just the opposite.”

Council members need to consider vulnerable residents with disabilities and without cars, Rog said. The city could start clearing snow around affordable housing and group homes, she suggested.

While Mayor Jake Spano indicated the cost estimates needed to be revised, he said, “Historically, I’ve not been a fan of this idea.”

He said he talked to three other mayors, two of whom said they wished the city had not taken on the responsibility of plowing all sidewalks because doing so could take days and snow became packed in the meantime. He said the city should focus on improving work in the areas it already handles.

City Manager Kim Keller said the city could extend the timelines to clear snow if it expanded clearing, but she said the council should consider the impact on other work and the physical impact on staff.

“I’ve heard multiple times from our staff that this is some of the most physically grueling work on them because every time they hit every crack in the sidewalk, it jars their bodies,” Keller said. “To ask the same staff to do this for days on end is something that I do think about in terms of our the physical health of employees.”

The city could have new employees handle some work performed by contractors when they’re not clearing snow and the city could improve narrow sidewalks and add curb cuts, Keller added.

Spano noted that if the city skipped such sidewalks, the owner who still had to clear the sidewalk might feel punished because the city had not upgraded the path itself. Kraft responded that the city could create a plan to gradually upgrade those sidewalks.

“My overall point is I think we need to have the mindset that we are going to do this,” he said.

If the city fails to change its system, Rog said, “Frankly, I think we ought to discuss stepping back from saying we prioritize walking over driving in this community because we’re not really living up to that unless we start to invest and really transform how we’re doing it now.”

 Spano opposed an assumption that the city would clear all sidewalks.

“I’m saying we’ve talked about this before, and that threshold hasn’t been met,” he said. “It certainly hasn’t been met for me yet.”

Councilmember Tim Brausen joined the mayor’s position.

“I do think we prioritize walking, but it may be a problem that’s not solvable in that the freeze-thaw cycle happens,” said Brausen, who did favor the city clearing areas near multifamily housing to improve access to transit.

Councilmember Lynette Dumalag added, “I’m not prepared yet to say we are going to go and do all the shoveling and take care of it all because, you know, some residents might say, ‘Well, I could have done this better.’”

With several council members open to exploring how to make at least some upgrades, though, Keller said staff would investigate options to clear snow differently and reconsider cost estimates.

Regardless, residents along sidewalks designated as neighborhood sidewalks, rather than the community sidewalks the city clears, will need to clear their sidewalks this winter. The city enforces the ordinance based on a complaint basis only, with the first offense leading to staff education efforts and the second offense of the snow season leading to a $25 citation, an amount that doubles with each subsequent violation. The city can also clear the snow itself and bill the owner for the cost.

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