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Snow removal is still a hot topic

February 15, 2004|by Terry Headlee

If I didn't think we'd get pounded with another winter storm this season, I'd let the controversy over Hagerstown's snow removal ordinance blow over until next fall.

But there were several significant developments during the past week, in addition to an interesting twist on what the city pays someone to clear some of its own sidewalks.

First, the city should be applauded for its decision to refund the $100 administrative fee to property owners who were billed before the city changed the way it enforces its snow removal law last week. Violators now will be charged a more reasonable $25 administration fee until the ordinance is further reviewed by the mayor and council later this year.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman also said the city will renegotiate the flat $45 salt application fee to a sliding scale based on the size of the sidewalk.

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That's good news too because the $45 salt application charge is an excessive mark-up that has irked many readers.

It's been mentioned before that you can buy a ton of salt on the Internet for $40, which is enough to treat about a mile of roadway.

I did some quick math and by my calculations, that's enough to treat more than 300 sidewalks.

Of course, I realize you might have to treat a sidewalk two or three times and sometimes ice can be a real time-consuming bummer.

Still, the flat $45 fee seems more like price gouging and is far more expensive than the city is paying a contractor to treat some of its own sidewalks.

Yes, you read that right.

It turns out that the city is getting a heck of a deal on salt application and labor charges for snow removal from a local contractor it hired in January 2003 to clean its own sidewalks for the Department of Community Development.

Charles Burkett of Servtec Custodial Inc. told us last week that he charges the city $15 per sidewalk and $5 for salt application.

The city, if you recall, sent out bills to owners of 51 properties that ranged between $178 and $285 after a different contractor cleared the sidewalks. The breakdown includes the $100 administrative fee, $28 per hour for labor, $22 per hour for snow removal and equipment fees, and of course, the $45 salt application fee.

Twenty dollars versus $200 or more per sidewalk is quite a spread.

It was bad enough the city was enforcing the snow removal ordinance on local property owners while at the same time it was in violation of its own ordinance.

Now you're probably wondering, like I am, how the city can send bills in the hundreds of dollars to its citizens - some of them older residents - for snow removal costs while it pays a different contractor only $20 to treat its own sidewalks.

For the record, Burkett said it was his fault that he didn't see the original public notice when the city was soliciting contractors for snow removal.

But at the same time, it was unfortunate that the city called 14 other businesses to see if any were interested in bidding on snow removal, yet none of the calls were placed to Burkett's business, which already was under contract with the city.

In an interview with Herald-Mail Reporter Greg Simmons, Burkett said he could offer the price of $35 per sidewalk for salt and labor and still "make some money on it." City officials said last week that Burkett's company is on the list of people to call for future bids.

No one disputes the need to hold property owners accountable for not maintaining their sidewalks. You can make a good argument that the city's snow removal law, which has been on the books for years, hasn't been actively enforced for public safety's sake.

One solution offered by several readers is for the city to charge residents a more reasonable fee for snow removal and then fine those property owners who are the worst offenders.

That sounds like a reasonable compromise.

Of course, if it doesn't snow again, then much of this becomes a moot issue for at least another 10 months. Let's hope Mother Nature gives us all a break.




Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by phone at 301-733-5131 ext. 7594 or e-mail terryh@herald-mail.com.

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