Suburban Crystal plans to take responsibility for clearing sidewalks

Effective 2019, the people of Crystal, Minnesota, might never be shoveling out their sidewalks again.

Effective 2019, the people of Crystal, Minnesota, might never be shoveling out their sidewalks again. Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

For many in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, besieged by six inches or more of Saturday's snow, today probably feels like a fine day to quit shoveling for good.

If that interests you, maybe your town could take a hint from the elected leaders in Crystal, Minnesota.

On Tuesday, the northwest Twin Cities suburb's city council held a work session to discuss the city assuming responsibility of snow removal from all sidewalks. The proposal would go into effect in the next year, and was met with broad approval from council members.

“We don’t ask people to plow their own streets, we don’t ask people to mow [their parks,]” says Council Member Jeff Kolb. “Why do we treat sidewalks differently than the rest of our transportation network?”

Kolb says the city (population roughly 22,000) currently has a hybrid system for sidewalk snow removal. If the sidewalk is close to the street, the city plows it. If it's farther away, the resident is responsible for it.

This ordinance would have the city clear sidewalks regardless of distance from the street, and wouldn’t cost the city anything extra, according to Kolb, who says the task could be accomplished by rearranging city employees' responsibilities.

“For us, it’s just a decision that [sidewalks are] a public good, and need to be treated as such,” Kolb says.

The plot to end individual's shoveling chores grew out of a larger review undertaken by Crystal's city engineer of the suburb's entire code and ordinances.

Crystal's caretaking appears to run counter to its political makeup, which is anomalous in the Twin Cities, where most city councils lean left, with a roster of DFL-endorsed candidates. Crystal has only one DFL-endorsed member, and as recently as 2017, was widely known as the only city in America with a ruling majority of Libertarians.

Some have credited that political makeup for a recent government innovation, one even more curious than shoveling citizen's sidewalks. In 2016, Crystal paid cash for a new $13 million publicly funded building, bucking the almost universal trend of borrowing to pay for a public works project -- and spending a quarter of the city's savings with one purchase.

Kolb says the council is officially non-partisan, and has members from across the ideological spectrum, and that the Libertarian label is largely media-driven. 

From his view, support for the snow-clearing proposal seemed strong during the work session -- official city council meetings where the members talk, but don't vote -- though not all members are on board with the change.

Council member Julie Deshler opposes the measure on principle. “I guess maybe because I’ve always grown up in an area where, if you have property, you take care of it yourself,” she explains. “It is what it is. We’re going to try it.”

Despite Deshler's reticence, she sees the snow removal plan as a positive step overall, and thinks it would pass in a council vote. Deshler noted that even if the city assumed the burden of sidewalks, they would likely be a secondary priority, after streets.

Kolb says he's aware of one other city in the Twin Cities metro, Golden Valley, that also had a similar ordinance.

Unfortunately for the people of Crystal, Tuesday's work meeting came far too late to get them out of shoveling the half-foot of snow that dumped on them this weekend.