“Shovel, Shovel; Toil And Trouble.”

UPDATE Feb. 10, 2014 The Common Council defeated the proposal by a vote of 7-2.

It is no secret that Syracuse is the snowiest big city (pop. over 100K) in both NY State–and often the country. It is also no secret that with all the snow, the city’s sidewalks are often not passable for pedestrians. As a result, the low-income neighborhoods that have the lowest levels of auto ownership (and the most pedestrians) have lots of schoolchildren and seniors walking in the streets during the winter:

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The city’s only solution to this problem seems to be punitive fines. The Common Council will vote on Monday for a proposal to have the police issue fines to owners of property with unshoveled sidewalks. The fine would be $100. Two years ago, the Council proposed to have Code Enforcement fine owners $50 for unshoveled sidewalks. It was defeated by a 9-0 vote.

I’m not so sure that assessing fines will result in more cleared sidewalks. The problems facing a punitive fine regime remain the same:

  • The city has over 2,000 vacant houses and 3,400 vacant lots and the owners have walked away from their responsibilities. Will a fine that slumlords have no intention of paying suddenly persuade them to become good citizens?
  • The city itself owns a lot of property with sidewalks that remain unshoveled after large snowstorms. The city has reduced its municipal workforce in the past few years. Should the city now transfer workers from plowing streets to shoveling sidewalks?
  • Does the city really want to fine the elderly and disabled homeowners who are physically unable to shovel snow and may be too poor to pay for the service?
  • Does the city really want to take police officers away from crime fighting to assess fines and mediate complaints that neighbors make against each other?

The city needs to investigate how Syracuse University manages to keep all of its sidewalks clear and study Rochester’s citywide sidewalk maintenance program–an idea that, in return for an annual fee assessed on all taxpayers, transfers the responsibility for all maintenance and shoveling of sidewalks from the homeowner to the municipality. Maybe they are angling for a gig on Late Night with David Letterman and their new segment: Stupid Public Policy Tricks.

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