Putting Minneapolis in charge of clearing snow from the city's public residential and business sidewalks would cost $116.2 million over the next three years and $40.6 million every year thereafter, according to a report delivered Thursday to the City Council.
Transportation maintenance director Joe Paumen told the council that a municipal sidewalk snow plan could begin as early as 2024, with 596 miles included in the "Pedestrian Priority Network," a grid of streets frequently used by pedestrians.
The next year would add 657 miles of sidewalks in the city's Camden, Central, Longfellow, Near North, Northeast, Phillips, Powderhorn and University communities — those with the highest transportation equity scores based on demographic and socioeconomic census data. The third year would incorporate the remaining 657 miles in the Calhoun Isles, Nokomis and Southwest communities.
According to the report, having the city take over sidewalk clearing would ensure consistent service, reduce the need for sidewalk inspections and possibly drive down complaints delivered via the city's 311 line — of which there were more than 12,000 this winter, when a historic 90 inches of snow and a relentless freeze-thaw cycle left ice-pocked sidewalks across Minneapolis.
But municipal snow clearing might take longer than the current system, transportation planner Kadence Novak warned.
The city now requires single-family home and duplex owners to clear their sidewalks down to the pavement within 24 hours after a snowfall, while business owners have four hours. That might not be possible unless city workers use machinery through the night, she said.
There are other logistical pickles, the council learned. City crews wouldn't be allowed to pile snow on private yards as homeowners currently do; instead, they would have to haul and store it elsewhere.
A labor shortage could complicate hiring 30 full-time workers and 180 seasonal workers, a force large enough to implement the program. And the three-year phase-in approach would require ample communication with property owners to manage inevitable confusion about which streets would be cleared and when, what years they would have to keep shoveling and when the city would take over.
The city would also need to expand its fleet of snow blowers, Bobcat loaders, trucks and trailers that run on diesel — which would increase air pollution.
The program's sheer expense alone would be difficult to surmount, according to some council members — who acknowledged that many residents would experience sticker shock.
The planned 2024 city property tax levy is $472 million, or $27.6 million more than this year's levy. The municipal sidewalk clearing program would cost $27.3 million in its first year — almost the entire amount of the 2024 levy increase.
Council members Robin Wonsley and Aisha Chughtai issued a legislative directive in February, asking city staff to study what a municipal snow clearing program would require and how much it would cost. Both were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, whose local platform calls for municipal shoveling of public sidewalks.
Council Member Latrisha Vetaw said the presentation confirmed that she wants to continue shoveling her own snow and use her own dog-friendly deicing products.
"I don't support this," Vetaw said. "I do think that there are some things we can do to help our seniors and our most vulnerable populations."
But council proponents urged their colleagues to consider the benefits of reducing injuries and the ripple effects that could have on emergency room wait times.
Chughtai related a story about her mother, who broke the cartilage in her knee after slipping on an unsalted sidewalk while heavily pregnant. It left her with lifelong mobility problems, she said.
"Real families' lives are impacted in immeasurable ways," Chughtai said. "What we're talking about doing is making an investment in a public good, and all investments in accessibility and safety, all public goods, are expensive."
The staff analysis proposed more targeted and less expensive approaches to city snow clearing that would require further study. They include shoveling for seniors, snow ambassadors, and snow case workers for properties with documented patterns of shoveling noncompliance, such as rental housing.
City data show that most residents don't need help shoveling. Just 6% draw repeated complaints, and once warned, only 1 % force the city to deploy a contractor to clear their sidewalk.
When just one person fails to do their duty in a winter city such as Minneapolis, however, it makes the whole block impassable for neighbors, Council Member Andrew Johnson said.
Johnson, who chairs the council's Public Works Committee, said he thought the yearly cost would be even higher than the $40.6 million estimated in the report. But he indicated he would pursue one of the lesser options if it addressed the safety problem without monumental expense.
"If you add up 15 departments of the city, this would be more than their collective budgets," he said, "and, in fact, if this was its own stand-alone department, it would be just behind all of Public Works, followed by the Police Department, followed by the Fire Department."