Imagine, in winter, after Minneapolis’ latest round of snow, a municipal employee patrolling sidewalks to ensure property owners shovel their sidewalks, as city ordinance requires.
Sounds like one of those “only-in-Minnesota” ideas, right? Well, in a report released Thursday, city officials floated hiring these workers. Their job title? “Snow ambassadors.” (Hey Siri, whaddya call a city employee found in a place that was buried in more than 90 inches last winter?)
In the two-year pilot city staff envision, a pair of snow ambassadors would patrol about 20 miles of Minneapolis’ busiest pedestrian paths, clearing unshoveled sidewalks and handing out warnings to non-compliant property owners for their first offense. A second warning would trigger the usual punishment: The city would hire a contractor to clear their sidewalk, then bill the property owner for it.
Wait, why are we talking about ‘snow ambassadors’?
City data show 95% of Minneapolis property owners complied with the city’s shoveling ordinance last winter. Still, the city received more than 12,000 complaints last winter — and even one uncleared path can create serious mobility hurdles and fall risks for residents who are elderly, have a disability or rely on transit.
Minneapolis City Council member Aisha Chughtai said her mother once broke the cartilage in her knee after a wintertime fall on a slippery pedestrian path.
“She was just walking to the car to get groceries or going to a doctor’s appointment maybe,” Chughtai recounted. “The sidewalk wasn’t properly salted.”
That’s driven some City Council members, including Chughtai, to push the city to take responsibility for plowing all sidewalks after every snowfall.
But in their report Thursday, city staff concluded a municipal sidewalk-shoveling program that would only cover certain streets would cost $27 million its first year alone, enough to gobble up all the new money next year’s already-budgeted property tax levy increase would generate.
Hence: “snow ambassadors” — one of a handful of ideas city staff presented to the City Council as less-costly alternatives.
Why costs quickly add up for a citywide shoveling program
If the city were to enact a municipal shoveling program, the city’s analysis assumes sidewalk plows would roll after every dusting of snow.
The plow would be mounted on special tractors (which the city would need to purchase) and tailed by a Bobcat and trucks to haul away the snow, all driven by both full-time and seasonal employees of the city’s Department of Public Works. They’d both clear snow and apply de-icing treatments. With these assumptions, expanding the program citywide would push the program’s costs well over $40 million per year, city officials said.
The city’s analysis doesn’t contemplate options that might defray the cost of a municipal shoveling program. For example, council member Robin Wonsley — who supports citywide sidewalk plowing — said in an interview last February she would support a “mixed-delivery model,” in which some of the path-clearing work could potentially be farmed out to community groups or contractors.
Chughtai briefly went back and forth with the city’s public works director, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, on the lengths to which the city should go to keep sidewalks clear. The city would need to spend more money to meet its current requirement that residents clear their sidewalks down to bare pavement.
“What we wanted to provide for all of you is the very best estimate of what it means to do a full city-led sidewalk clearing operation that meets our residents’ expectations,” Anderson Kelliher said.
Previous cost estimates have found a sidewalk-clearing program would cost far less — about $6 million per year — if the city plowed paths only after declaring a snow emergency, rather than after any trace snowfall.
But critics have questioned whether creating a comprehensive program would be worth the effort if it was only deployed after a handful of heavier snowfalls each year (and wouldn’t save property owners from needing to shovel their driveways or sidewalks anyway). Plus, Mayor Jacob Frey has raised concerns about staffing the program, especially considering the seasonal nature of the work.
The report also suggests that the costs of the program could easily balloon beyond the roughly-$40 million annual estimate, based on data from commercial corridors in the city where property owners already pay for sidewalk clearing. For example, the bill for sidewalk clearing costs property owners in the Lyndale-Lake Special Service District roughly $6.50 per lineal foot during an average winter — which would translate to $70 million citywide.
‘Snow ambassadors,’ and other alternatives
In their report, city staff strongly hint that “snow ambassadors” and other “targeted” measures to reach property owners who can’t or don’t comply with sidewalk-clearing ordinance are a more realistic solution.
“We have data telling us where and how often complaints are happening,” explained Kadence Novak, a transportation planner and pedestrian coordinator for the city. “We don’t have the qualitative data for why these are happening. Maybe they have a broken leg this year, maybe they have welcomed a member of the family, maybe they have an illness, maybe they’re a snow bird.”
A two-year snow ambassador pilot program would cost $458,000, city officials said. They offered no estimate for how much it would cost to pay a “mobile team” to clear properties where property owners can document “barriers to snow and ice clearing related to age and ability.”
The city could also spend on other alternatives. Some Minneapolis neighborhood associations, including in Longfellow and Bancroft, already pay kids or young adults to shovel for senior citizens living alone.
A subsidy of $735,000 per winter would pay for 2,100 senior householders to receive shoveling services citywide — assuming all 84 neighborhood groups participated, and each served 25 properties, staff estimated.
Staff also suggested that some repeat-offender commercial or industrial property owners may be relying on city enforcement anyway, finding it’s cheaper to pay the city to clear their sidewalks than to hire their own service.
“Adjusting the contractor cleanup fee for industrial and commercial properties, specifically, by setting fines as a percentage of property value or charging by linear feet cleared may add additional deterrents to sidewalk snow and ice violations,” staff concluded.
Council member Elliott Payne said he was glad to see a report that explored alternatives as well as broke down the costs of citywide sidewalk-clearing.
“One of the challenges about the conversation has been either we do nothing or it is going to cost us $40 million,” Payne said, “and I just really appreciate that you’ve broken this down into so many different elements of what the challenge is.”
Whatever alternatives the city considered, council member LaTrisha Vetaw made it clear she preferred to shovel and salt her own sidewalks.
“I want to use my own products on my property,” she said. “I want to put my snow on my grass, on my plants so they can melt for winter blossoms — I have about 2,500 tulips in my yard — and I love the snow. This is the only time I get to be with my neighbors in the winter.”
MinnPost intern Alberto Gomez contributed to this report.