There was considerable consternation in City Hall that the layoffs of seasonal workers and others this spring and summer, in response to the economic catastrophe caused by COVID-19, would carry over into winter — and would mean fewer city workers to plow and remove snow.
The good news is that seasonal and other city employees, particularly in parks maintenance, were to be largely back on the job by the end of summer. And, “We will have our staffing for winter,” Mayor Emily Larson announced in a virtual interview in September with the News Tribune Editorial Board.
The bad news is that Duluth’s plan to finally fix its badly broken snow-emergency system had to be put on hold — yet another disappointment stemming from a pandemic that’s busting bottom lines all over the world.
“By the time we needed to order and place (the 2,800) signs along (snow emergency routes), directing people where to park, that came at a cost that I was not willing to prioritize over the other elements and the other impacts we were having,” Mayor Larson said. “It really came down to the mechanics that we just do not have the time to order and place signs and then go back and train people on how to use that snow-emergency system. That really hurt. I was eager to implement that.”
The implementation — along 120 miles of well-traveled streets that would be cleared of cars and plowed first after snow-emergency declarations — was estimated at more than $500,000. The spending was wisely curtailed, given other spending needs, severely shrinking revenues, and rapidly tightening budgets.
But it can’t be put off permanently. Duluthians need only look to last year’s Thanksgiving weekend blizzard to see how important it is for the city to have a better plan and system for removing snow and reopening streets following winter storms.
This winter, though, it will still largely be up to us to do the right things.
To make sure we’re parked on the proper side of the street, every night, in compliance with alternate-side parking rules, so trucks and graders can fit through and promptly clear snowbank-narrowed roads.
To think twice before venturing out unnecessarily when the snow is piling deep or the roads are slick, lest we end up getting stuck and blocking plows from reaching entire neighborhoods. (Yay, another reason to “shelter at home!”)
And to be vigilant and responsible about shoveling the public sidewalks in front of our properties, recognizing that kids need to walk to school on those sidewalks, older folks need to safely be able to reach bus stops and other destinations, and others use the roadside footpaths to get to work or the store or elsewhere.
Most who don't shovel public sidewalks are simply being lazy. Or rude. They can keep in mind that it’s not only neighborly and necessary for public safety, it's the law in Duluth. Has been since 1935 when an ordinance was passed requiring sidewalk snow removal within 24 hours. The ordinance has never had real teeth — and shouldn't need them. Rather than threatening fines or penalties, the city has always opted to work cooperatively with residents. As partners.
All of us partnering is as necessary as ever this winter — until the city’s finances can recover and it can get back to doing its part by finally fixing snow-emergency procedures.
“We are continuing to Plan B for this coming winter and are working to remind residents and visitors of their obligations around parking and certainly property owners about their responsibility to clear sidewalks,” Duluth Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said to Editorial Board members. “We are working very hard when it comes to snow to improve on last year’s operations. Having a blizzard start the snow season (last Thanksgiving) was really tough. If it had melted in early December and we could have reset, that would have been great. But that didn’t happen, and that made last winter trough for everybody. We recognize that, and so we’re doing what we can to get ahead of that in terms of our internal planning. A big part of that is educating on what people need to do to be helpful and what the law says.”