Omaha property owners who get behind on shoveling their sidewalks and let the city’s contractor do the job should face less sticker shock this winter.
City bills for clearing the sidewalks last winter averaged nearly $950. Some property owners told of dealing with health troubles and hospital stays and returning home to “astronomical” bills.
The Omaha City Council passed a new ordinance Tuesday requiring Public Works to determine and charge residents and business owners the market rate for scooping sidewalks.
Shoveling scofflaws will pay a penalty for letting the city or its contractors shovel their walks more than once. The city is adding new fines for repeat offenders of up to $300 per offense.
Even with the new limits on snow removal bills, people could still pay hundreds of dollars to remove packed and hardened ice and snow, which is often left on sidewalks for several days and draws complaints to City Hall, Public Works officials say.
Even so, City Councilwoman Aimee Melton said the city needs a better process than it had in 2018-19, when 184 property owners were billed a total of $174,117 to remove snow from sidewalks.
The city charged most Omaha homeowners between $300 and $700, though some who live on corner lots or with long stretches of sidewalk received bills of more than $1,000.
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Many commercial and industrial property owners received bills for more than $3,000. A handful are fighting the city, including at least one business owner who has sued.
The city’s current billing rules do not distinguish between repeat offenders and taxpayers who either got behind or just made a mistake and didn’t clear their walks, Melton said.
“It was way more than punitive,” she said Tuesday. “It was excessive.”
Her ordinance, which requires property owners to be charged no more than the market rate as determined by the city each year, passed the council 7-0 on Tuesday.
The council made the changes over the objections of Public Works officials, who previously had asked the council to wait on Melton’s proposal but relented on Tuesday.
They expressed concern about language in the ordinance allowing Public Works to bid out the sidewalk work or do it with city employees.
Bob Stubbe, the city’s Public Works director, said his department doesn’t have enough people to do the work.
Public Works officials have been working to find more bidders earlier in the year, to avoid a repeat of the big bills received by some property owners last winter. Officials said Tuesday that they had already received eight bids.
Last fall, only two contractors submitted bids to do the sidewalk work. The lowest bidder, DPS, charged $6 to $10 a foot for snow removal, depending on the snow’s depth.
The new bids, which are still being reviewed by Public Works, range from $2.25 per linear foot to $25 per foot, city officials said.
Stubbe said during a Sept. 17 pre-council meeting that his department is trying to break the contract into smaller pieces so more companies can bid.
Melton said she wanted to pass her ordinance to make sure a future Public Works director and City Council don’t have to deal with another round of high bills.
Her hope is that Public Works could not forward the council a bid as high as last year and that the ordinance will remind Public Works of the cost of being complacent in seeking bids.
Council member Rich Pahls said the council needed to approve the ordinance to provide the oversight necessary to make sure Public Works follows through with securing more and better bids.
Said Melton: “This keeps the pressure on Public Works to make sure they’re actively seeking lower bids ... so it’s more fair to the people” who miss shoveling their walks once.