TRAVERSE CITY — Ben Hansen and Chris Bazzett left their Traverse City home for a short walk downtown on the busiest shopping weekend of the year, but they had to walk down the middle of the street to get there.
Hansen has lived along State Street for about a dozen years and had grown used to the city clearing the public sidewalks within three days of a snow event. That service slipped over the past few years, and after Thanksgiving most city sidewalks were impassable and forced pedestrians into the street.
“We say we want to be a walkable community and this just seems counter-intuitive to me,” Hansen said. “Somebody is going to get hurt, and it’s just going to be a shame.”
Carol Tompkins-Parker uses alleys to get downtown because, unlike the sidewalk, the city plows alleys.
“This is a safety issue, and it isn’t right at all,” Tompkins-Parker said. “I shouldn’t have to walk down the alleys at night.”
Several city commissioners acknowledge being buried in residents’ sidewalk snow complaints after the year’s first major snowstorm. Commissioners will discuss snow removal during a study session Monday at 7 p.m. in the Governmental Center.
“This is our first ... snow and right off the bat people are really jumping on us,” Commissioner Jim Carruthers said. “We have six more months of this weather ... and we have to do a better job.”
Dave Green, the city’s director of public works, cites fewer workers as the main reason walks didn’t get cleared following six straight days of snow that led to Thanksgiving. The city used to have 18 people in the streets department, 14 on day shift and two each working evenings and midnight. In the past 10 people piloted plow trucks, while four others were available to dig into sidewalks work.
“Now we’re down to just enough people to drive the trucks on the day shift,” Green said. “If we’re getting continuous snow, once a guy finishes his route he has to start it over again.”
Hansen and Thompkins-Parker said city staffers told them and others they no longer clear sidewalks. City workers also reminded them that city ordinances require property owners to clear their own walks. Residents also weren’t pleased to hear of talks among some commissioners about a stricter snow-removal ordinance with possible fines.
“We live in a neighborhood with two 90-year-old neighbors,” Thompkins-Parker said. “They shouldn’t be penalized because they can’t shovel out their sidewalks.”
Commissioner Ross Richardson said constituent concerns about snow removal prompted him to approach city administrators. He said he learned the city stills clear sidewalks, though it’s not a top priority.
The city snow removal policy calls for clearing sidewalks within three days following the plowing of city streets, a goal Green called “impractical” with current staffing levels.
“So the first thing the city needs to decide is what their damn policy is,” Richardson said.
Another problem: Some residents call for a renewed focus on sidewalk plowing, but others want less government and taxes in their lives, and that means fewer workers, Carruthers said.
Both Carruthers and Richardson said they favor the city putting more money into sidewalk snow removal, but Mayor Michael Estes said he leans more towards the personal responsibility outlined in the city ordinance.
Commissioner Gary Howe wants a stronger snow removal ordinance, but favors more discussion, time and community education before adopting an ordinance that might include fines for not shoveling. But he’s also supportive of the city putting more resources toward sidewalk snow removal.
“We haven’t done an adequate job for the last 10 years,” Howe said. “The machines are really good at getting the big stuff out of the way, but we still need people to shovel what they miss.
“We need a collaborative effort here,” he said.