Unfortunately sidewalks, snow, ice and pedestrians don’t mix that well and this is the time of year when the polar vortex forces us to deal with it in the name of safety.
The City is proud of its reputation as a walkable city, especially around campus and downtown, but living in the snow belt we have the challenge of living up to that reputation 12 months a year.
The City’s Public Service Director (Gene Roberts) and I have recently shared information to a group of concerned winter walkers about Kent’s sidewalk shoveling rules, regs, and services — and I thought this would be a good time to pass it along as a friendly reminder for the role we all have in keeping our sidewalks safe for everyone, especially those folks that who are least equipped to handle slips, trips and falls — like the seniors, children and disabled that call Kent home.
My Response to the Concerned Kent Winter Walkers
I very much appreciate the interest and concern expressed for pedestrian safety during our winter months. Gene Roberts copied me on his response to you and I thought he provided an excellent outline of the many dimensions to our sidewalk shoveling challenges. For what it’s worth, I wanted to add my observations on this important issue in Kent.
First off, while it may not necessarily be obvious based on the condition of some of the snow covered sidewalks right now, pedestrian safety in the winter is a top priority to the staff and City Council. Believe it or not back in 2010-11 when we tallied the number of hours that staff spent working with City Council on issues during the previous 12 months, sidewalk shoveling ranked number 1. Sidewalk safety in the winter months received more attention than anything we’ve done, including downtown redevelopment.
The problem continues but it is not a due to a lack of attention. We brought in speakers, we visited other communities, we benchmarked best practices, we created a citizens committee to study sidewalk shoveling in Kent, we drafted new policies, we calculated the costs of new services, we analyzed shoveling compliance and we proposed a range of service options. Despite all that effort, no easy answers were found.
Like so many public policy issues, the fix ultimately comes down to figuring out how much “we” as a community are willing to pay to have the City clear sidewalks and how much are “we” willing to do ourselves under the auspices of old fashioned “civic duty.” We found in our hours of study that opinions are all over the map on where the City role should end and where civic responsibility should kick-in, and consequently finding a consensus was nearly impossible.
If monies were unlimited I think everyone would agree to add it to the City’s “to do” list to make sure it gets done reliably, timely and properly. The trouble is Gene calculated the cost of citywide sidewalk shoveling at over $1 million — which is a big number in the context of the City budget and is just not available to us right now.
If we can’t afford to clear all of the sidewalks, that logically led to a lengthy discussion on how much can we afford and how do we go about “picking and choosing” which sidewalks to clear and which ones to leave in the civic duty category.
We came up with some reasonable factors to consider, e.g., ped counts, vehicle speeds, handicapped proximity, senior citizens, young students who walk to school, etc., in order to provide a defensible basis for why city tax dollars were being used for sidewalk clearing on one street but not another. It turned out that while it might sound good on paper to develop sidewalk priorities, it broke down when it came time to actually make the cuts and ultimately it became politically untenable. As a result, sidewalk shoveling was deemed to be an all or nothing option.
The do nothing option takes us right back to the current situation where the community relies on “civic duty” to motivate residents to do their part and clear their sidewalk frontage for the good of the whole. But as you observed compliance doesn’t keep pace and we’re left with many unsafe sections of sidewalk.
That led us to take a hard look at what could be done to compel civic duty to improve compliance. We covered the gamut here too — we considered new ticketing procedures, court actions, tax penalties, shaming people by listing properties that were chronic non-shovelers. While we did come up with a few small changes for the most part neither staff or Council were comfortable with making Kent a shoveling police state so little was changed in that regard.
As solutions proved elusive a few groups and individuals took shovels into their own hands and formed a small shovel brigade that volunteered to adopt the shoveling duties on certain streets. Kent State students and fraternities joined in and they made an impact in certain areas but unfortunately they graduated and the volunteer spirit graduated along with them.
So fundamentally we’re back where we started. The City Code says that all of us who reside or do business in Kent must not push or pile snow in such a way as to block or impede safe passage on City sidewalks. If you pile and block it, you can get a ticket.
If mother nature left piles of snow on the sidewalk the Code says that all of us who reside or do business in Kent are responsible for clearing that snow within a reasonable amount of time after the snow storm has ceased. As noted above there no effective means of enforcement on the books to inspire better compliance so many are left untouched. Which means we still rely on the appeal of civic duty and good citizenship to encourage property owners to do their part.
I think the extra efforts that Gene noted in his email have definitely helped but the problem is still evident enough that you felt moved to write a letter of concern so there’s clearly more work to be done.
Email from Gene Roberts, Public Service Director
Kent City Council has discussed this very issue several times during my tenure as Service Director, and the following are some of the key findings:
Our Law Director advised that case law does not support the forced removal by property owners of snow from public sidewalks
Council provided for additional voluntary reminder notifications to go out with each notice of snow parking ban
Council provided a small fund to be used for removal of snow at intersection cross walks where City street snow removal operations have left large volumes of snow at the corners during street clearing
Central Maintenance continues to improve street snow removal operations to decrease the volume of snow left behind on sidewalks (however in locations like SR 59 where the sidewalk is at back of curb snow on sidewalks is the only option if the streets are to be plowed)
Community Development is following Council’s direction to take a more aggressive approach with commercial property owners where snow is left behind from private parking clearing operations
The Police in conjunction with the Law Department are issuing citations where private property snow plow operators are found pushing snow onto public walks
I believe I speak for those of us that have discussed this issue at length when I say until a funding source sufficient to remove snow from walks is found that we are stuck with our current situation.
During previous years KSU students have completed some voluntary snow removal from sidewalks when they reached out to our senior citizens assisting with sidewalk clearing. Is it possible to mobilize the students to clear the routes most used by their fellow students, especially those in wheel chairs?
I know that you where hoping that a simple request would be followed by a quick and simple response but hopefully this abbreviated response starts to address the complexity of this issue.