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Snow Sidewalks

Taylor Jacques walks on a sidewalk covered in snow and ice in the University District of Missoula recently. 

The Missoula City Council voted to roll back proposed increases in the fees charged to people who don’t shovel snow from their sidewalks, and set a public hearing on the matter for Dec. 17.

The initial proposal was to raise the administrative fee charged for handling valid complaints from $42 to $150. In addition, the rate being charged for the first half-hour of shoveling would have gone from $30 to $175, and the pro-rated rate of $60 per hour after that would have jumped to $325 per hour.

But concerns about the size of the proposed increases, as well as the fact that only one contractor responded to the request for bids for the work, prompted city staff and Councilor Julie Armstrong to seek ways to have lower fees.

"We have been working all day on ways to lower fees," Armstrong said. "We're resuming the (request for proposal) process to get new bids."

She said they hope MontanaWorks, a subsidiary of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative that already provides low-cost shoveling services for about $30 for a half hour for two people, will bid on the contract.

They're also considering changing the way the sidewalk program handles violations.

Currently, if a person doesn’t shovel the ice and snow from their sidewalk and that’s reported to the city, it sends an employee to check out the complaint. That person takes a photograph and leaves a notice on the door, and a city employee then returns the next day to see if the complaint has been resolved. If it hasn’t, and the responsible party doesn’t contact the city, an employee is sent to shovel the walk and the owner is sent an invoice.

This arrangement can put the city employee at risk of an injury, which could result in a workers compensation claim, and it’s also not in anyone’s job description, which is one reason the city wanted to find a private contractor.

But Armstrong proposes that they amend the process, allowing the sidewalk to be shoveled immediately after a complaint is issued, and assess a $50 to $150 administrative fee only if the property owner is a repeat offender.

Councilor Jordan Hess said he believes this is a good concept, and expects details to be worked out by the public hearing date.

"This is not about grandma and grandpa's sidewalks," Hess said. "This is about out-of-state, repeat offenders, rentals and other users who do not abide by the community contract that we have. There are good neighbors who shovel walks, so this being construed as going after people who can't shovel their walks, that's false."

Armstrong added that they've never assessed a fee on elderly citizens who can't shovel their walks; instead, the city has cleared it for free in those cases.

Imagine Montana, a nonprofit that partners with 13 agencies in Missoula, has a program that uses mainly volunteers to help people shovels their walks in the winter. But last week, the nonprofit’s volunteer coordinator said they’re wary of the proposed hourly increase, and the pressure it could put on the organization.

Armstrong encouraged people to sign up to volunteer with Imagine Montana to make sure those free services can continue.

The motion passed 10-1, with Jess Ramos saying he was "just too libertarian" to support the measure. Councilor Stacie Anderson was absent.

Council President Bryan von Lossberg noted that this isn't a huge problem in Missoula. In fiscal year 2017, 212 violations were reported, but only seven properties were assessed for a total of $560. Last year, the number of complaints dropped to 150, and fines totaling $648 were assessed to nine properties.

The public hearing begins at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 in the council chambers at 140 West Pine St. If passed, the resolution would take effect Dec. 18.

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