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Snow Emergencies: NOT Cheaper by the Dozen

February 02, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

As the snow emergencies declared this week by Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other towns have reminded us, it’s one of those winters. Even though winter officially began December 21st, the Twin Cities have been forced to declare an unexpected number of snow emergencies, starting on November 13th.

Public works budgets for St. Paul and Minneapolis run on a calendar-year, meaning once warmer weather comes, cities aren’t safe from snow budget overruns. Record setting snow at the end of 2010 (the beginning of the current winter season) busted the Metrodome’s roof along with budgets.

St. Paul's Public Works department had four snow emergencies budgeted for 2010 - there ended up being seven. The heavy snow has a number of other repercussions besides financial costs though. The amount of salt brings up environmental concerns. Poorly cleared or uncleared sidewalks serve as barriers and safety hazards, especially to folks with disabilities.

St. Paul ended the year $1.3 million over budget for snow and Minneapolis finished $3 million over budget. This doesn’t mean cities simply didn’t have the money—they just had to take from other reserves to make up for it. A good portion of snow management budgets is devoted to plowing another significant cost is snow removal.

In order to maintain mobility in many areas—especially dense downtown areas—snow has to be plowed then hauled to suitable dumps. The good news is that it will eventually melt on its own, but finding and paying for dumping sites is costly, as is transporting snow to those sites. Hauling’s wear and tear on roads is another somewhat hidden cost.

One hauling alternative is a snow melter, a large machine that melts snow and runs the water into the city's sewer system. These machines simplify the problem of snow removal by melting it, often on-site, but they have their costs. For many big entities, like malls and municipalities, the melter's cost can justify itself and might even be cheaper than hauling. The biggest concern with these melters, however, is that they consume a lot of energy. On average, a mid-sized snow melter can melt about 30 tons of snow per hour, and uses 40-60 gallons of fuel an hour.

For the more scientifically minded, the output is around 9,000,000 btu per hour. To put that in perspective, heating an average Minnesota home for the entire winter produces 80 million btus. That is equivalent to only nine hours of snow melting.

As far as sidewalks, both St. Paul and Minneapolis have snow removal ordinances. In both cities, it is the property owner’s responsibility to clear snow from the sidewalk within 24 hours after a snowfall’s end.

If a property owner fails to clear their sidewalk within 24 hours, a citizen can complain to the city, which automatically sends a letter to the property owner and/or tenant informing them they have 48 hours to clear the sidewalk, according to Angie Weise from St. Paul's Department of Safety & Inspections. After 48 hours, a city inspector visits the property. If it needs to be cleared, St. Paul's Parks & Recreation department clears the sidewalk and sends the property owner a bill. This winter has brought 2,356 complaints so far, with 680 Parks & Recreation work orders to clear sidewalks, says Weise.

This process takes time, however, and anyone who uses the sidewalks has to deal with the snowy mess before it is cleared. This has proven to be a barrier for people with disabilities, many of whom have been forced to navigate the streets in order to travel even the shortest of distances.

Minnesota Public Radio reached out to its Public Insight Network about this issue, and received a number of stories from people with disabilities, many of whom were forced to simply stay in their homes during snowstorms and the days succeeding them.

Snow emergencies are a necessary tool for local governments, and budgeting for something as unpredictable as Minnesota weather will always be a challenging task. It is important to maintain funding for this essential government service, both in times of snowy emergency and the more typical times of snow removal.

It is also important to examine our methods, and work to improve them, both financially and environmentally. When we are in the thick of winter, surrounded by cold and snow, it is very easy to not care how the snow disappears, as long as it disappears. We should not allow our frustration with wintry conditions to cloud our vision of what methods we use. In order to be a strong community, we need to work together to manage snow efficiently and enable everyone to maintain mobility.

photo credit: Andrew Ciscel, creative commons

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