Government

Shovel the sidewalk or foot the bill in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids

Hundreds have complaints have been filed for unshoveled areas

A man uses a snowblower to clear snow Tuesday along a sidewalk in Wellington Heights in Cedar Rapids. The area received
A man uses a snowblower to clear snow Tuesday along a sidewalk in Wellington Heights in Cedar Rapids. The area received up to 10 inches of snow overnight. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Full width. Down to concrete.

Those simple words of wisdom from Iowa City Senior Housing Inspector Stan Laverman — meaning to shovel snow the full width of the sidewalk down to the concrete — are pretty much all it takes to keep the city from sending someone out to clear your sidewalk after a snowstorm and billing you for it.

Even so, city officials in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids say they are deploying contractors and crews out to hundreds of residences this winter for failing to remove snow from the sidewalks.

Laverman said Iowa City has received 428 different complaints so far this winter, which has been comprised of five snow events by the city’s count. In Iowa City, residents have 24 hours to clear their sidewalks after a snow event. If the city receives a complaint, an inspector will confirm the complaint, leave a notice and give the resident another 24 hours to comply before sending out a private contractor.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way many people work, recreate, commute and attend school, that hasn’t translated into any significant changes in the number of complaints, Laverman said.

“I’ve not seen a noticeable uptick in complaints,” he said.

Most complaints come from people walking to or from work or getting outdoors for exercise, Laverman said. The city tracked complaints in the last few years to see if there were any socioeconomic connections.

“What we found is Iowa City as a whole complains,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what census tract you’re in. ... We were getting complaints at pretty much an equal amount across the city.”

The cost of sending Iowa City’s third party contractor for snow removal — Hawkeye Construction and Snow Removal — will add up fast for residents.

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Laverman said Hawkeye charges $150 an hour in 30-minute increments for shoveling, plus additional charges for using ice melt or equipment.

“And they’re typically not 15-minute jobs,” he said.

The minimum $75 visit also comes with a $100 administrative fee from the city. Laverman said the fee has been at that amount for roughly a decade and it’s based on the staff time needed to respond to complaints, do invoices and respond to resident questions. While that fee no longer covers the cost of that administrative work, Laverman said he’s not considering increasing it.

The city of Cedar Rapids’ minimum fee has remained $313 since city officials scaled back the charge after the City Council in fall 2019 had approved a higher fee structure with a minimum of $511 per job.

That $313 minimum charge still is in place this year, though residents could individually be charged more based on the work required.

Property owners must clear their adjacent sidewalks within 48 hours of a snowfall, or ignore subsequent warnings and face the penalty.

Before billing the property owner for snow removal, the city sends a warning letter to violators. If a crew has to clear the snow, the city bills the property owner.

“We take such pride in being a community of good neighbors, so we often ask neighbors to check in with each other, determine any shared challenges and lend a helping hand to neighbors in need,” Cedar Rapids Utilities Director Roy Hesemann said in a statement. “We find that a good-neighbor attitude can limit the need for the city to correct code-compliance issues. Unfortunately, when a property owner is unresponsive to our letter reminding them of their snow-clearing obligation, we are left to clear the sidewalks to ensure safe passage for all residents. We are always ready to respond to warranted complaints as they come in following winter storm events.”

So far, residents have made 282 reports about sidewalks this winter — only 18 shy of the 300 complaints received last winter. Ninety-one reports have escalated to a code case this winter.

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Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Mark Jones said “the limited number of compliance issues pop up across the city pretty randomly, with no identifiable pattern as to the most common reporting locations.”

The Public Works Department’s streets division has abated 35 sidewalks this winter, which is slightly less than the 41 cleared last year.

Hesemann said it is difficult to predict if there will be more this year compared with last winter, though it appears likely because the snow events forecast.

“Several factors can contribute to the number of snow removal jobs we undertake each year, including the number and intensity of snow events, the length of time between snow events and the number of reports filed by residents,” Hesemann said. “With all of these variables, it is difficult to extrapolate a strong trend when comparing the data year-over-year. With two heavy snow events this year, and some winter weather likely ahead, you could say snow and ice accumulations have stuck around longer and may have been less likely to melt off with time this year compared to other years.”

The National Weather Service forecasts a more than 80 percent chance of a wintry mix and snow starting Saturday afternoon, with possibly up an inch accumulation.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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