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Saturday April 1st 2023

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That's what she said

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Snow Job


photos by Roger Wolvington

It’s winter in Colorado and it snows frequently in Boulder. On average we get about sixty inches of snowfall each season. Being in an arid climate this moisture is welcome for lawns, plants, gardens, crops and our drinking water supply.

The snow is not welcome for drivers and pedestrians. But, most of us know we’re living in snow country. We amend our driving habits accordingly. We expect local and state governments to make adequate efforts to clear some of the snow off thoroughfares. We act like good neighbors and shovel our sidewalks for pedestrians.

At least most of us do.

To address public safety the City of Boulder decades ago adopted ordinances requiring property owners to maintain sidewalks clear of snow, ice and other hazards to pedestrians. Most residents and businesses respond quickly and do at least somewhat sufficient jobs of clearing their walks after a snowfall.

In recent years residents have begun to voice concerns about a lack of action by the City of Boulder in enforcing the ordinances on scofflaws who show no concern for pedestrians. Part of the problem is staffing and funding. A few years ago a previous city council majority, acquiescing to a recommendation by a previous city manager, cut funding for environmental enforcement. The Environmental Enforcement Office is responsible for a broad range of public safety issues, including sidewalk inspections.

Council approved the cuts even though public safety is the highest priority of local government. While reducing funding for enforcement of environmental ordinances, council approved a large budget for incentives and subsidies to corporations wanting to locate in Boulder, expand here or remain in the city. It was a question of priorities and business won out over public safety.

Once the public saw the effects of the cutbacks the complaints intensified. At one council meeting a delegation of physically disabled people asked the city to do a better job on enforcing the sidewalk ordinance. They, and their supporters, also pointed out the poor job done by some city snowplow operators who pushed snow off streets and onto sidewalks, bus stops and bus shelters, creating particular problems for blind people and those in wheelchairs.

Chagrined and embarrassed, the council instructed the then-city manager to respond to the issues. Nothing happened. Funding remained depressed. The ordinances were rarely enforced, even after citizens made formal complaints against specific properties. There just weren’t enough inspectors to cover a city of 100,000 people.

Fortunately, a new city council majority elected in 2009 began to take notice of the complaints. Funding was increased and more environmental inspectors employed. Council amended the sidewalk ordinance and instructed the city manager to have staff respond more quickly to citizen complaints.

Other problems have not been addressed. Snowplow operators still have not been trained to keep from pushing snow off streets and onto cleared sidewalks, bike lanes and bus stops. Boulder prides itself on a balanced transportation system that puts primary emphasis on alternative means (feet, bikes and buses) instead of cars, but when snow removal occurs that policy goes out the window.

For the most part property owners in Boulder respond quickly to clear their sidewalks. In my neighborhood about 85% have acted within 24 hours or less at the end of a storm. However, the icy and snowy sidewalks on the remaining properties can be dangerous, especially to elderly pedestrians and disabled people.

The scofflaws are usually landlords of rental houses and small apartment buildings and even the Boulder Valley School District. All of those properties are regular offenders that have been reported to the City of Boulder for years, to no avail.

Now the city council says things will change. Laws will be enforced. Fines will be levied. Pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders will be safer.

But, we’ve heard that refrain before. When spring arrives and winter departs we will know whether city council’s commitment was real, or a snow job.

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