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Detroit Lakes sticks to its guns on not plowing public sidewalks

“I’m just looking out for the citizens,” one resident told the city council. “It doesn’t bother me, because I’m healthy enough to run my snowblower, but I know there’s an awful lot of them that can’t, and (paying) for a contractor to clear a sidewalk is a financial burden for a lot of people.”

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Monty Hanson of Detroit Lakes has to drive his electric scooter on the streets. He said he got stuck Tuesday evening at a snowy sidewalk intersection and fell down several times trying to pull his scooter back out of the mess. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

Having trouble navigating some of the unshoveled sidewalks in Detroit Lakes this winter? Waiting for the city to come through with one of its small skid steers and clear a path?

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Even with Rossman School in sight, kids have to walk in the street to get there because of this snow-covered sidewalk on Rossman Avenue. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

Don’t hold your breath. The city is trying something new this winter and is steadfastly refusing to plow any sidewalks other than its own — in spite of a long tradition of doing just that.

This winter, Public Works Director Shawn King, who joined the city in February of 2020, has been trying to faithfully follow an ordinance that the city passed 13 years ago, in the midst of a budget crisis, that was never really implemented.

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Shawn King, public works director for Detroit Lakes, presents his data concerning snow removal on city sidewalks during a regular meeting of the city council on Jan. 11, 2022. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

That ordinance requires property owners to clear snow and ice off the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses within 72 hours. If they fail, the city will do it for them, and they will be assessed or sued for the cost of the job.

Snow is not a black and white issue

Former Public Works Director Brad Green, it seems, never had the heart to follow through on that tough approach, perhaps because even though it involves the white stuff, snow removal can be a big grey area.

What about older residents or disabled people who can’t do the job themselves, and can’t easily afford to pay others to do it?

And it’s not just postal workers and dog-walkers who suffer when sidewalks aren’t plowed: If any kids are actually trying to walk to school, they are being forced into the street — even, ironically, on the Safe Route to Schools sidewalks the city put in a few years ago.

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Not everybody in Detroit Lakes is as good about moving snow as Francine DeGroat, who lives on Willow Street across from M&H convenience store. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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On the other hand, is it fair that young, able-bodied residents and well-off owners of commercial property leave their sidewalk-clearing responsibilities to the city?

If the city weakens and goes back to its sidewalk-clearing ways, it will have to replace the oldest of its two sidewalk-sized skid steers, and budget for additional plow, snowblower and broom attachments, King said.

He said it would cost the city about $94,000 to hire a contractor to clear all sidewalks following 15 snow events of over 6 inches. (That’s based on $60 an hour for a skid steer with a bucket scoop and $40 an hour for labor).

Should the city stay the course?

It became clear at the recent city council meeting that Mayor Matt Brenk and Vice Mayor Ron Zeman are on different sides of this philosophical divide.

Brenk leaned towards providing sidewalk-clearing services next winter, or at least taking a look at the budget numbers in August.

“We increased our levy by over 10% and it’s going to increase the taxes on a medium-valued home in Detroit Lakes by $24, so it might not be that big of a deal to fold those costs into our budget for next year,” Brenk said.

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Yes, there is a sidewalk buried under the snow on Forest Street. It's supposed to be a "Safe Route to School" but kids have to walk in the street over stretches of Forest Street. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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Too many residents have gotten used to the city taking care of their sidewalks, Zeman said. Whether it’s mowing in the summer, raking in the autumn, or clearing snow in the winter, “we have to get people back to taking care of their own property,” Zeman said.

“Shawn (King) is the guy we hired to do this job,” Zeman added. “Let’s follow his directions for the next couple years and see how this works out, and see if we can get people to start doing it like they’re supposed to.”

King told the council that city workers checked on sidewalk compliance Dec. 12, hung notices on 233 doors, and sent notices to 46 businesses.

He said 17% of the city’s 117 miles of sidewalk were not clear at that time.

After the next check on Jan. 3, he said 50 notices were left on doors, 31 “second-notice” letters were sent to homes and 23 to businesses. At that time, 7.4% of sidewalks had not been cleared.

“The non-compliance is getting better, and I feel the compliance will continue in a positive direction if we are allowed to stay the course,” he said. The city will continue to clear snow off the 31 miles of public sidewalks alongside parks and other city-owned property, he said.

'There is literally no way the kids can walk to school safely'

Doug Friendshuh of Detroit Lakes told the council that the current situation is a safety hazard.

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Doug Friendshuh, Detroit Lakes resident, speaks to why the city should remove the snow on city sidewalks for the residents of Detroit Lakes during a meeting of the city council on Jan. 11, 2022. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

“I checked the sidewalks this afternoon (Tuesday, Jan. 11) and Roosevelt Avenue is mostly clear, but there is not a single sidewalk that attaches (cleanly) to Roosevelt,” he said. “There is literally no way the kids can walk to school safely.”

Students trying to walk to school have to jump snowbanks two or three feet high, left by street plows, he added. “Last week I saw somebody pushing a cart up the street (because there was no room on the sidewalk). Do we really want our citizens out there walking on the street? The streets are already narrowed.”

Friendshuh said he called staff at 15 cities within 45 miles of Detroit Lakes, and seven of those cities clear public sidewalks. Four absolutely do not do it, and the other four do it in spite of policy that says they don’t — kind of like Detroit Lakes did for years.

“Some said we do all the safe areas around schools and businesses where there’s a lot of traffic,” he said. “Some do all the main streets but not the smaller ones. Some do all the shared-use sidewalks used by multiple people.”

Most cities leave it to the residents, at least on paper

King said he checked with 15 cities in the region, including larger ones like Moorhead, Bemidji, Alexandria, and Fergus Falls, as well as smaller area cities like Park Rapids, Frazee, Lake Park, Perham and Mahnomen. Most require residents and businesses to clear public sidewalks.

Some cities assess property owners for sidewalk clearing. Detroit Lakes could make that work, at $75 a year for the owner of a 100-foot lot, King said.

Friendshuh asked the council to take the needs of residents into account.

“I’m just looking out for the citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me, because I’m healthy enough to run my snowblower, but I know there’s an awful lot of them that can’t, and $300 for a contractor to clear a sidewalk is a financial burden for a lot of people.”

In the end, the council took Mayor Brenk’s advice to put off any changes until the next budget talks in August. ”In the meantime, can’t we just ignore it? It’s such a mess anyway now,” Brenk said. “I don’t know how anybody can shovel a sidewalk that hasn’t been shoveled already, without a jackhammer.”

The council voted unanimously to approve Zeman’s motion to stay the course and follow the 2008 ordinance the rest of this winter, then have the budget committee look at the issue prior to next winter’s snowfall.

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