MOUNT VERNON — If weather predictions hold true, area residents will wake up this morning to find 1 to 3 more inches of snow covering roads, vehicles, and sidewalks.
While roads and vehicles for the most part are cleared relatively quickly, sidewalks frequently are not.
At their meeting on Monday, Mount Vernon City Council members started the discussion on who is, or should be, responsible for sidewalk snow removal within the city.
As in many cities nationwide, Mount Vernon's code states that sidewalk snow removal is the responsibility of property owners. Mayor Matt Starr said that as the city thinks about active transportation and safe passage to work and school, the issue of sidewalk snow removal needs closer attention.
Leaving it to property owners is haphazard. Some property owners do not comply at all. Some clear their sidewalks at different times. Some are unable physically to comply and do not have the financial means to pay someone to do it for them. Vacant properties pose another problem.
Regardless of the reason, pedestrians often are forced to plow through the snow or detour into the street when they reach an uncleared section.
City crews clear Public Square and the sidewalks in front of city buildings. Grants from the Ariel Foundation over the past several years have taken care of some sidewalks, such as the one from First Baptist Church on Edgewood Road to Memorial Park and the sidewalk on Martinsburg Road. The city's parks department clears the pedestrian bridge over the Kokosing River.
Two sidewalks that typically are not cleared are across the viaduct on South Main Street and Coshocton Avenue. Both get a lot of foot traffic. Council member Tammy Woods noted that she has seen several individuals in wheelchairs on Coshocton Avenue diverting onto the street to avoid the sidewalk snow.
Safety-service Director Richard Dzik said that council needs to provide direction on sidewalk snow removal with an understanding on how to dedicate resources, mainly financial, to it. He said that it would take a couple of days before street crews could get to clearing sidewalks, so the best way is to subcontract the sidewalk snow removal.
Regarding Coshocton Avenue, Dzik said that because city snow plows frequently create additional coverage on the sidewalk, he understands if council decides that sidewalk should be the city's responsibility. He noted the cost might be covered through Coshocton Avenue TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding.
Councilman Mike Hillier's concern was enforcement if sidewalk shoveling becomes the city's responsibility.
“Who do we go to afterward if [snow removal] doesn't happen?” he asked. “The mayor?”
Noting that the city installed several new sidewalks last year, Councilman John Francis questioned whether the city is responsible for new sidewalks.
Dzik said “it is a slippery slope which ones we shovel.”
“Because we'd also be responsible for that sidewalk should it crack or have upheaval, too,” he said.
Councilman Tanner Salyers agreed it was a slippery slope as to which sidewalks the city should take responsibility for, but also agreed the city has a responsibility in areas where city trucks are throwing snow onto the sidewalk.
“Definitely if we are causing a bigger mess, we should clean it up. And maybe if a school is having a problem. But that's as far as I am willing to go,” he said.
Council member Julia Warga, chair of the Streets and Public Buildings Committee, said her research shows that most municipalities in Ohio have an ordinance similar to Mount Vernon's. Some Michigan communities are addressing the issue; one municipality makes use of volunteers.
Several communities in the northeastern United States are also taking steps to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians. Solutions and success rates are varied.
“If we are encouraging people to travel in something other than cars, we need to have this conversation,” Warga said.
In its legislative session, council passed an ordinance changing the police department staffing from 20 officers and nine supervisors to 19 officers and 10 supervisors.
Police Chief Robert Morgan reiterated that the change did not take any officer off the street. He said that by relieving the officers of administrative responsibilities, the change actually puts more officers on the street.
He also reviewed some of the requirements, including regular review of body cam video, set by the Ohio Collaborative which the police department just joined.
Council member Samantha Scoles, who previously expressed concerns about making the change before a human resources audit was completed, voted in support of the ordinance.
“I think our partnership with the Ohio Collaborative should be a priority,” she said, adding that she was a little disturbed to find that no one is really reviewing body cams.
Council took the following additional actions:
- Suspended the rule requiring three readings and approved the reappointment of Salyers to the Board of Main Street Mount Vernon and Council member Janis Seavolt to the Board of the Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the appointment of Myra Wilson to the Civil Service Commission
- Suspended the rule requiring three readings and approved disposing of two mowers (estimated trade-in value totaling $18,000) and a dump truck and buying replacement vehicles
- Suspended the rule requiring three readings and approved the trade-in of a police vehicle
- Gave a second reading to legislation changing the number of employees in the water/wastewater department
- Gave a first reading to legislation authorizing bidding and contracting for 2021 street resurfacing
- Heard a presentation from Fire Chief Chad Christopher regarding potential station locations