Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday February 15, 2020
Sidewalk snow clearing debate demands action
Hamilton’s sidewalk snow removal controversy isn’t going away any time soon. In part, that’s because of an aging population who understand at a visceral level that mobility isn’t something to take for granted.
Being able to move around freely outside your home isn’t a frill. Whether for people who have age-related mobility issues, need wheelchairs or have babies in strollers, it’s a critical part of living a healthy and independent life. And that lifestyle can make the difference between remaining independent or falling into a cycle of increasing infirmity, which ultimately leads to losing that precious independence.
And this isn’t a only “soft” issue about quality of life. It’s also a bottom line issue. People who lose the ability to live independently require intervention and sometimes supported housing. And we have a huge problem with long-term care capacity.
In short, there is value on many levels in support of investing in measures to help people remain independent. Year round, not just in spring, summer and fall.
But how should that manifest itself? This week city council directed staff to investigate the matter of sidewalk snow removal. We don’t know what they’ll come back with, but from our perspective there are three potential areas worth consideration.
One is the idea of the city taking on snow clearing on all public sidewalks — all 2,445 kilometres of them. The estimated cost of that could reach $5.36 million. It is clearly the most socially progressive option. But is it practical, and would it be effective? City staff say it would cost $15 per household based on the average property value assessment. The average Hamilton homeowner can afford $15 annually. But put that together with an estimated 3.5 per cent tax increase and user fees increasing across the board plus increased taxes driven by property value reassessment, and it’s clear many taxpayers would not support that option. They’d say it’s just another straw on the camel’s back. And many residents of neighbourhoods that don’t even have sidewalks would certainly balk.
What about a partial solution where main thoroughfare sidewalks and those in designated high traffic areas were cleared? More affordable for sure, but there remains the question of how quickly the city (or contractors) could get certain or all sidewalks cleared. If it’s not very quick either of these two scenarios could prove ineffective. In Burlington, sidewalks are cleared within 24 hours, but when there’s significant snow it can take up to 72 hours. In Toronto, main downtown sidewalks get cleared but not neighbourhood sidewalks.
Another partial solution is less complex. Hamilton should toughen up its existing bylaw that penalizes scofflaw homeowners who don’t clear their sidewalks. The current reporting system results in slow and inconsistent service. Beef it up. Ensure there are enough bylaw staff to respond in 24 hours. If snow and ice are not cleared, have contractors do the work and bill the homeowners, and build in a little markup which the city could use to fund other sidewalk snow clearing measures.
Most homeowners and tenants are responsible and do the right thing. We should not hesitate to come down hard on those who do not. They’re jeopardizing public safety and showing disrespect for their neighbours, most of whom look out over clear sidewalks.
Whatever else happens, the city should toughen up on those who refuse to do the right thing. It’s likely that the only people who would not support that are the ones who are part of the problem. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)