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City can clear walks without hurting aged

February 03, 2004

Hagerstown officials now say they may rethink how the city enforces its snow-removal ordinance. A good thing, because the present system unfairly burdens older residents who often depend on the kindness of neighbors to shovel their sidewalks.

The case that's provoked the most outrage involved 86-year-old Mary Jane Zook, who received a $223 bill from the Code Compliance Office for not having her walk shoveled one day in December.

A neighbor who usually does the chore was unavailable that day. And so the city had the work done and charged her $100 for an administrative fee, $78 for labor and $45 for salt.

So far, the city has had 52 sidewalks cleared on 51 properties and billed the owners of those properties $10,743. About half that total went to Build All Construction, the city's contractor, and the other half to cover the cost of inspections.

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All this suggests two questions: Why does the city have to contract out snow removal when it already has hundreds of employees who are paid with taxpayers' dollars? And if the object is to get the walks shoveled, why not work with residents to get that accomplished?

That ought to include warning those who are about to be fined and creating a list of reputable contractors or individuals who would do such work at reasonable rates.

Would that create extra work? Probably. Would it create goodwill for the city government? Certainly.

We realize that through its enforcement policy, the city government is trying to ensure the safety of residents who use the sidewalks. We agree with that, because especially for the elderly, a fall on the ice can be a life-threatening event requiring months of convalescence.

But was getting the walks cleared in this way worth creating the impression that the Hagerstown city government is a heartless bureaucracy?

We know that's not true and we're sure that when the elected officials put their minds to it, they can craft a solution that gets the sidewalks cleaned without taking residents to the cleaners.

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