CEDAR RAPIDS — In Cedar Rapids, not clearing your sidewalk of snow in a timely fashion could generate a fee of more than $500 if the city does it for you.
Before winter weather rolled in, the Cedar Rapids City Council last week approved a 26 percent fee increase from a minimum of $405 last year to a minimum of $511 this year for clearing sidewalks for property owners who fail to comply with the city code. The code requires owners to remove snow and ice from their adjacent sidewalk within 48 hours of a snowfall.
Sidewalks are considered public right of way, but adjacent property owners nonetheless are responsible for them.
“It is important to understand the city is not ‘in the business’ to make a profit from sidewalk snow removal,” Solid Waste Superintendent Mark Jones said in a statement released through the city. “There is an entire market of opportunities to contract this service, or arrange for the generosity of neighbors, family, or friends to help those in need. The city would prefer no property owner face sidewalk abatement fees, so we ask property owners to maintain compliance with the 48-hour rule. We realize the abatement process is not inexpensive.”
He noted clear pathways are important for many residents to reach a bus stop, businesses or other destinations.
In recent winters, obstructed sidewalks increasingly have become a problem. Cedar Rapids has seen complaints spike from 34 in the 2016-17 winter to 136 in the 2017-18 winter to 392 in the 2018-19 winter, according to city data.
Last winter, the city cleared 58 sidewalks at the owners’ expense, making it the only year of the three it stepped in.
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Council member Scott Olson said he often gets messages in the winter from people who can’t get to the store or church because a sidewalk is snowed over or too icy. It was substantially worse last year, which featured a polar vortex with record lows and was one of the snowiest on record.
“I do get lots and lots of calls about it,” Olson said. “But I’ve never got a call that said the charge is unreasonable.”
The fee increase did not come through the infrastructure committee, which Olson chairs. It was included in the council consent agenda, which is reserved for routine and non-controversial items that don’t get discussed at a public council meeting.
Property owners have 48 hours to clear sidewalks after a snowfall, and the clock resets if it snows again within that 48 hours. The city — typically based on complaints from the public — sends a warning letter to violators with a two-day grace period to urge compliance, followed by an inspection.
The vast majority of the properties comply before the inspection. But if not, a streets division crew is assigned. If the sidewalk is clear when the crew arrives, no charge is assessed, but if not, the crew clears the sidewalk and the property owner get the bill.
The new fee structure includes a $163 administrative fee per job, up from $115 last year. Typically a minimum of three people is assigned with a labor rate of $68 an hour apiece, up from $62 last winter. That’s a combined $204 per hour for labor.
“We have found that it works reliably to send three people for these abatements, and so that is how many we send,” Jones said in the statement. “Thinking back to last winter, for example, there were properties with not only 5 days of snowfall, but perhaps weeks’ worth. You can imagine, with the layers of ice and snow involved in those examples, the additional attention that neglected sidewalks may need.”
An $84 per hour fee is charged for a small snow plow, $10 per hour for a snowblower and $20 per hour for a 1-ton 4x4 pickup; those rates have not changed. Each job has a minimum charge of one hour.
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Two new charges include a $20 materials fee and $20 per hour for a 3/4-ton 4x4 crew cab pickup, according to city information.
By comparison, Iowa City charges an $100 administrative fee plus outsources to a third party contractor who charges an hourly rate and materials fee — but the rates are still be determined, according to Matthew Wagner, an Iowa City housing inspector.
Marion charges 85 cents per square foot — which could amount to $272 for a typical residential property — plus a $25 administrative fee. For a first violation, Coralville assesses a $50 administrative fee and passes along the bill from a third party contractor who completes the work, typically $55 to $275 depending on length of sidewalk and whether a snowblower or shovel is required.
In the statement from Cedar Rapids, Jones explained the increases. The administrative fee had not previously included the streets division’s efforts, the solid waste and recycling division equipment had not been included, and wages had not included the “fully burdened employee hourly rates.”
“The fees were not structured to compete with market-rate snow removal, but instead to equitably recoup costs (administrative, staff time, materials, and equipment wear and tear) incurred by the city when correcting uncompliant properties,” Jones said in the statement.
Robin Brunner, chief operating officer at the Ecumenical Community Center in Cedar Rapids, which serves clients with disabilities, and a past president and member of Peer Action Disability Support, said the new fees are a mixed bag.
People who use wheelchairs or with have other physical challenges rely on clear pathways, so a steeper penalty could help spur better compliance from those “thumbing their nose at the requirements.”
On the other hand, it could also be hardship for property owners with disabilities or who are elderly or others who may physically struggle with the task. People with disabilities are twice as likely to have low incomes, she said.
“We are basically pitting one disability against another,” she said.
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