Some Missoula councilors are uneasy with a proposal to significantly increase charges to people who don’t shovel their sidewalks, but most agreed to pass the resolution while also exploring other options.
Council member Julie Merritt voted in favor of the resolution, which will have a public hearing on Dec. 17, but said she hopes the city staff will look into ways to bring the costs down.
“In our communications, I hope we let people know Imagine Missoula, a nonprofit, is available to help people who can’t clear their walks,” Merritt said. “Missoula Works is another nonprofit that will do it for a much smaller fee than a guy hauling out a big snow blower. We need to make people aware of the lower-cost options.”
The proposal is 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 go from $30 to $175, and the pro-rated rate of $60 per hour after that would jump to $325 per hour.
Under the city ordinance, sidewalks must be shoveled by 9 a.m. after a snowstorm.
Jesse Ramos was the only council member to vote against the measure; councilors Heidi West, Michelle Cares and Stacie Anderson were absent.
“It seems the city is so aggressive with taxes and fees and fines,” Ramos said after the meeting. “This is double the total with just the administration fee.”
Angela Miller, a volunteer coordinator for Imagine Missoula, also is wary of the proposed hourly increase, and the pressure it could put on the organization.
“The fee of $325 per hour — many of our clientele, if fined that, there’s no way they could afford that,” Miller said. “Because we’re volunteer based, I can’t guarantee that for every person who calls and needs a person to shovel that we can get to them before nine o’clock.
“If they’re assessed a fee it will be a big financial burden based on the income of these people. So many of our clients are low income.”
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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 person 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, according to Ginny Merriam, a city spokesperson.
Only one company responded to the request for proposals the city put out, which is reflected in the proposed new hourly rate structure.
The administrative fee increase brings it more in line with capturing the cost of providing what amounts to about three hours of service, according to Alicia Vanderheiden with Development Services.
“There’s some that are more than three hours if there’s a back and forth with the homeowners,” she said.
Council member Julie Armstrong recommended searching for ways to pair private contractors and nonprofit groups to provide the service at a lower cost.
“It seems like a lot of money,” Armstrong said. “Maybe we need to do this in a different way.”
Bryan von Lossberg, the council president, said he is sensitive to the concerns over the costs, but added that it’s typically “serial violators” who don’t take care of their sidewalks. 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.
“It’s not like it’s 9 a.m. and the city runs out and assesses people,” von Lossberg said. “And going forward on this doesn’t preclude bringing the proposal back.”
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.