Janesville residents feel city is adrift when it comes to snow policies
Talk to Mel Kehoe of Janesville.
The legally blind man has fallen a couple of times wading through the snow from home to work at Industries for the Blind, 1713 W. State St.
“When you’re trying to climb up something like that, it’s pretty hard to do,” he said recently of the snow pile on the corner of Center Avenue and West State Street.
Unshoveled sidewalks get under Kehoe’s skin. He’s one of more than 200 people who have called or e-mailed the city to report them this month.
Recent back-to-back storms have created a budget shortfall and a hefty backlog of sidewalk complaints, agreed John Whitcomb, director of the city’s operations division.
The city doesn’t track gripes about snowplowing, but it has received plenty of those, too.
The backlog has caught the attention of some elected officials. At the request of city council member Bill Truman, City Manager Steve Sheiffer has asked the operations division to explain its response procedure and suggest improvements.
Whitcomb has a few ideas.
“If it ever stops snowing, we’ll have time to review this,” he said half jokingly.
The most common criticism involves unshoveled sidewalks.
Under city ordinance, sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility. Residents must clear all sidewalks around their properties within 12 hours of a snowfall.
When people complain, operations staff first sends an inspector, Whitcomb said.
If the homeowner hasn’t shoveled, the city mails a letter giving the resident three days from the date of the letter to shovel the sidewalk. The inspector re-examines the area, and city crews shovel the walk if necessary and bill the homeowner a minimum of $105.
How long does that process take? It’s “highly variable,” Whitcomb said.
Depending on the weather, it can take days.
If crews are plowing—as they often were this month—they can’t shovel or inspect sidewalks. Rain followed by a deep freeze can make unshoveled sidewalks tougher to clear, generating more complaints.
To cut the backlog, the operations division might hire private contractors to clear sidewalks, Whitcomb said. Other city divisions, such as engineering, also might be asked to help with inspections.
Neither of those options has been pursued in the six years Whitcomb has directed the department.
“I see a problem with the lack of responsibility,” Whitcomb said. “Yes, there’s a problem with turnaround (on complaints). But I simply don’t understand why people don’t realize they need to keep walkways cleared. It’s a social responsibility we all have.”
Council President George Brunner agrees the city’s response time needs to improve. He suggests that city staff call shoveling scofflaws instead of sending a letter.
“We’ve got cases where people are disabled and really need to be able to walk down a sidewalk that’s shoveled and cleared,” said Brunner, who followed up on Kehoe’s complaint.
Truman said he will remind homeowners about shoveling at next month’s council sidewalk discussion. The city could toughen enforcement of the ordinance, he said, and charge higher fines for illegal parking during snow emergencies.
Madison, for example, slaps a $30 fine on those who park illegally during snow emergencies—$80 if the car is towed. Janesville police charge $20.
Whitcomb has considered penalties other than shoveling charges, but they require staff time to enforce.
Residents have lots of opinions when it comes to snowplowing, which generates the most complaints after sidewalks.
Richard L. Roberts thinks the 900 block of Sherman Avenue was forgotten during the last few snowstorms.
When he complained about the conditions, he got an e-mail from a city staffer, saying the city plows when snow accumulation reaches 2 inches. Two or three snowstorms later, about 6 inches of snow blanketed Sherman Avenue.
“When my wife gets stuck in a minivan, there’s just too much snow,” said Roberts, a sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 826th Ordnance Company in Madison.
The city crews plowed, but Roberts isn’t happy. He said the city needs to consider accumulated snowfall when it makes plowing decisions.
Deciding when to plow is subjective, Whitcomb said. That means not all snowplowing issues can be resolved, though staff tries to accommodate most requests.
“That’s just the nature of snow,” he said. “People all have different ideas on the level of service that’s implemented out there.”
The city’s policy is to first salt and plow the arterial and collector roads—down to bare pavement, if possible. As the storm winds down, plow drivers move to residential streets. The standard there is “good winter driving conditions,” not bare pavement, Whitcomb said.
Plowing residential streets down to the pavement all winter would stretch budgets and staff time, he said.
It also might generate more complaints, particularly when plowed snow freezes in people’s driveways.
As of Wednesday, the operations division was $694,000 over its 2007 snow removal budget of $808,314. Whitcomb said he expected December would put the city substantially over budget.
“Every time we plow, it’s roughly $75,000 to do what we need to do,” he said.
The shortfall could be covered with surplus from another public works budget. If there is no surplus, the city council would have to approve transferring money from other areas of the city budget, said comptroller Patty Lynch.
Year-round, the operations division is no stranger to complaints. In spring, it’s potholes. In summer, weeds and potholes. In fall, leaf pickup. But winter tends to stir up the biggest blizzard.
The division also accepts compliments, Whitcomb said. And those have come more frequently with improvements such as anti-icing measures and increased training for plow drivers.
“A few of those can really go a long way,” he said.
By the numbers
When city crews hit the streets during a snowstorm, they use this equipment:
Plow trucks: 28
Plow trucks equipped with salters and wing plows: 18
Motor graders: 3
Pickup trucks with plows and salters for alleys: 1
Who you gonna call?
Residents who have issues with snow removal from streets or sidewalks should call the City Services Center at (608) 755-3110. The phone lines are staffed from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes longer during snowstorms. People also may e-mail complaints to various departments via the city’s Web site, www.ci.janesville.wi.us/citysite.
The top 10 snowiest Decembers since 1948:
-- 2000: 35.2
-- 1987: 20.6
-- 2007: 20.5
-- 1977: 19
-- 1950: 18.9
-- 1983: 17.8
-- 1951: 17.3
-- 1969: 16.6
-- 1978: 16.5
-- 1994: 13.9