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Clear your walks or the city will clear your wallet

February 03, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Remember the good old days when, after a big snow, a little street urchin with a shovel slung over one shoulder would show up at your front door and say, "Shovel your walk, guv'nor?"

Or words to that effect. It might cost you a tuppence which, adjusted for inflation, amounted to a buck or two.

As some residents of Hagerstown have found out recently, times have changed. The city has a law requiring property owners in the downtown core to shovel their walks within four to 10 hours of a snowstorm. If you don't, the city can clear the walk and charge you for the work, and then levy a fine on top of that.

No one knocks at your door; the work is performed without warning. The city doesn't send some dirty-faced kid, it sends a corporation named Build All Construction. And how much does it cost to shovel a walk? Upwards of $200, and that doesn't count the fine, which can be another $200.

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Last week, the city charged an 86-year-old woman, Mary Jane Zook, $223 because she failed to get out there in sub-20 degree weather and shovel. Most governments strive to keep their older citizens warm. Not here, it seems. The city's bill included $100 for administration, $78 for labor and $45 for salt.

Must be good salt.

The city also charged a woman who was in a nursing home at the time and has since passed away. Now it might be easy to become outraged over this, but that would be leaping to conclusions without knowing all the facts. For instance, Ms. Zook's sidewalk might be 149 miles long, in which case $233 would be a heckuva deal.

A hundred clams for "administration"? Again, we don't know everything that was involved. Perhaps undercover agents in an unmarked van with sensitive listening devices and telescopic lenses had to sit across the street and stake out the sidewalk for a couple of days.

I think Hagerstown is on to something here. A couple more snows and goodbye city budget deficit.

Talk about the perfect business model. First, since so many folks downtown are elderly, they obviously will have difficulty shoveling. But it gets better. A gentleman on Locust Street called to say that as soon as the walks get shoveled, a city plow comes by and throws all the snow from the road back onto the sidewalk that had just been shoveled. If there's a more perfect plan than this, I have yet to hear of it.

Now I suppose some naysayers out there are going to point out that if the residents are responsible for the sidewalks, the city is responsible for the streets, and many of the streets and streetside parking spaces still look like the Yukon Territory.

This point about double standards is well-taken, but a person has to be practical. Look, if the City of Hagerstown can't shovel a walk for less than $233, it's got to cost at least $1,499 to clear out a parking space. With all the parking spaces in town, this simply would not be feasible.

And frankly, it's hard to have any sympathy for the people downtown. If they really wanted snow cleared from in front of their houses in a timely fashion, they simply would move to the North End. How about a little personal responsibility here?

As far as the council is concerned, I can see them going in either direction. They could get their Neighborhoods committees to solicit a pool of kids that downtown residents could call and pay $10 an hour for shoveling services.

But that would only serve to help the elderly and to put money into needy teens' pockets. And I think there are likely some other problems with that idea, too.

No, I hope the council takes the opposite tack and forms a full squad of Sidewalk Police who would be on duty year-round, not just in winter.

A fee schedule would be easy to work up: Unshoveled snow, $233. Cracked sidewalk, $350. Grass more than 2 inches high, $120. Leaves not raked, $210. Unattractive azaleas, $450.

Instead of a deficit, next you have a $1.8 million surplus, which ought to be enough to pay the legal bills from all the elderly people who have strokes while shoveling their walks.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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