By MAUREEN DOLAN
COEUR d’ALENE — It can take some heavy, bureaucratic lifting to ensure the city’s sidewalks remain clear of snow, but Police Chief Lee White hopes to change that.
When the Coeur d’Alene City Council meets Tuesday, White will present a proposal to amend the city’s snow removal ordinance.
The changes are designed to accelerate the now time-consuming process of enforcing city code that requires property owners to keep sidewalks adjacent their properties free of snow and ice.
“The way it is, we have to send a person multiple letters through our city attorney’s office,” White said. “Often it’s spring before resolution. It’s hard to get mad at somebody in June for not getting snow off their sidewalks.”
The goal is not to cite more people, White said. The proposed changes also aim to give code enforcement officers more flexibility when dealing with citizens whose sidewalks are not cleared.
“We don’t want to be heavy-handed. Often people aren’t aware of the ordinance, or they’re incapable of getting rid of the snow,” White said. “We do always use our discretion.”
The intent of changing the ordinance is not to put added pressure on property owners struggling to comply with the city’s law, White said. But because it’s a safety issue, officers need to be able to more quickly address those rare instances when property owners thumb their noses at the law.
For instance, when a sidewalk is not cleared, kids who walk to school along that route have to walk in the street.
“That’s hazardous for those children, and we think this ordinance will help with that,” White said.
For those unable to clear sidewalks they’re responsible for, White said officers and city staff members work with those people to assist them in finding help to get the snow and ice removed from the walkway. For low-income residents there are volunteer organizations that offer shoveling help.
The proposed revisions to the ordinance also reduce the penalty for the first two offenses from a misdemeanor to an infraction, a civil penalty. A third offense would remain a misdemeanor, a harsher penalty that includes potential jail time.
White and Sam Taylor, the city’s deputy chief administrator, each said the city’s philosophy is to take a softer initial approach and focus on educating citizens first.
“We want to make sure everybody understands what’s appropriate,” White said. “We understood this was a harsh winter. We will be absolutely reasonable in those circumstances.”
The proposed fine for a first offense is $100 that can be levied per day. Property owners have 10 days to pay. If a person fails or refuses to pay the civil penalty assessed, they could end up in collections.
If a person receives two civil citations that remain unpaid — after their 10-day window or after appeal — subsequent violations could constitute a misdemeanor subject to a fine not exceeding $1,000 and/or six months in jail.
Amending the ordinance will also clean up some wording that led to unintended consequences, White said. For example, the existing rule requires property owners to remove snow from sidewalks by 9 a.m. Since snowstorms often go on throughout the day, it’s unreasonable to expect people to shovel their sidewalks by 9 and then again later, White said. The revised ordinance calls for sidewalks to be clear “within a reasonable amount of time after a snowfall, considering all the circumstances, and when otherwise necessary.”
Taylor said throughout this winter, he was surprised to receive info from many citizens who were aware of the city’s law requiring home and business owners to keep sidewalks adjacent to their properties clear.
“And they supported us in enforcing it,” Taylor said.
Still, there are people who don’t understand clearing the sidewalks is their responsibility, he said.
Changing the ordinance reduces the level of bureacracy, Taylor said, so in those rare circumstances when citizens refuse to comply, officers can more rapidly respond.
But communication and education will remain a priority.
“Why don’t we have a human conversation and just engage them? That usually does the trick. Most people comply immediately,” Taylor said. “I think this is going to help us ensure people understand.”