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Wednesday, September 1,2010

Snow revisited

For the city, public safety trumps potential costs of a new snow and ice removal ordinance, which will be discussed publicly today

by Andy Balaskovitz
One thing is certain about Lansing’s snow and ice removal ordinance: It’s broken.


Over the past two winters, 450 nuisance complaints were filed with the Lansing Public Service Department. Of those, 207 notices were delivered to property owners’ doorsteps to clean up their public sidewalks (some of whom are out-of-state banks on foreclosed properties). Of those notices, only seven civil infraction tickets were issued. And to the department director’s understanding, none of them was paid.


Because the ordinance does not permit the city to clear the snow and ice, it just sits there, causing accessibility problems on the city’s sidewalks. The city only has the power to issue tickets, which is “futile,” Chad Gamble, director of the Public Service Department, said.


“Infractions are difficult if not impossible to write,” Gamble said, because a driver’s license is needed and most of those 207 notices were for absentee landlords or corporate entities. “That is just one problem we’re trying to solve. It’s an archaic, old and out-of-date ordinance.”


A long-awaited discussion during the Public Services Committee meeting is scheduled at 12:45 p.m. today in the Council chambers about fixing the problem.


A proposed ordinance supported by the Bernero administration would allow the city to issue a warning by mail and by posting it on the property if the snow and ice are not removed within 24 hours after they have formed. Property owners will have till 5 p.m. on the day after being notified that they must clear their sidewalks.. If they don’t, the city may do so at an owner’s expense. The city assessor would determine the cost incurred by the city and send that bill to the property owner.


The ordinance’s big club is that if the bill is not paid within 30 days, it will show up on the owner’s property tax bill.


And it won’t be cheap. Gamble estimated $110 in upfront costs for sending a city crew out for 20 minutes. Extra time would cost $48.79 each 20 minutes.


Backers of the new ordinance who didn’t have the votes to pass the ordinance last year say they do now, thanks to changes in the Council’s makeup at last year’s election.


They say the ordinance is meant to improve public safety by having clear sidewalks while also attempting to recoup the costs the city would take on by clearing them.


First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt, who chairs the Public Services Committee, agrees the current ordinance needs changing. “We can write a ticket, but unfortunately, most people don’t pay it,” he said, adding that the city would have to take each fine to District Court to collect that fee.


Hewitt does have concerns that the administration will hastily send out snow removal crews before a property owner has a chance to clear sidewalks. He said he will not support the ordinance unless there are “a couple sets of eyes” looking at the need for sending out a notice. Hewitt added that it was intentional to not specify a "magic depth" at which sidewalk snow had to be cleared.


Gamble said he is hopeful but “not 100 percent certain” that the city will be able to recoup some of the costs. He does know that the snow and ice will at least get cleaned up, which he said trumps any costs the city might incur. “At a minimum, (the ordinance) will be a gargantuan success because it will allow us to actually clear sidewalks," he said.


“The relatively small amount of fees that may go uncollected does not trump the com fort we would get from clearing the snow.”


Officials say the properties likely hit with these fees will be those in foreclosure or owned by absent landlords.


Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer, whose office collects delinquent property taxes, said there are two types of foreclosed houses in Lansing: mortgage and tax foreclosures. With about 1,200 mortgage foreclosed and a couple of hundred tax foreclosed houses, the city should have a better chance of collecting property taxes with snow removal fees on them from mortgage foreclosures.


“History has shown that the bank pays those (property taxes) off,” he said. As for the tax foreclosures: “They’re unlikely to recoup much costs off those.”


Schertzing, who also chairs the Ingham co. Land Bank, added that a real concern for widespread property owners — like the Land Bank, which spends between $10,000 and $15,000 per month in the winter to clear snow — is the cost for keeping all of those sidewalks safe.


“This is real money for anyone that owns a lot of property,” he said. “But it’s important we all do our part.”

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