Snowy sidewalk

Snow and ice remain on a sidewalk on 155th Avenue in Omaha on Feb. 26.

Omaha property owners who failed to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice last winter are digging out from big bills from the city.

The city sent 184 property owners bills totaling a combined $174,117 for removing snow from sidewalks, according to Public Works Department records.

Most homeowners were charged between $300 and $700 for snow removal provided by a city contractor. The owners of commercial and industrial properties paid more, with many receiving bills of more than $3,000.

For a number of years, the city has hired a private contractor to clear sidewalks when property owners fail to do it themselves.

But the cost of that contract has quadrupled since 2013, and Public Works and the City Council are considering changes to reduce the amounts property owners are charged.

Last fall, only two contractors submitted a bid for the sidewalk work. The lowest bidder, DPS, secured the contract, despite charging fees of $6 to $10 a foot, depending on the snow’s depth. The other bidder, Bayshore Contractors, bid $15 to $25 a foot.

The average bill for sidewalk snow removal this past winter was $950.

With bills that large, it would have been cheaper for people to hire a snow removal company, or the neighbor kid.

The bid was approved by the City Council in November after some discussion.

Public Works officials say the contractor must deal with snow that hasn’t been cleared for several days, leaving it hardened and ice-packed.

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Examples of this winter’s bills:

• A west Omaha homeowner near Grace Abbott Elementary School received a $1,021.44 bill for the contractor to scoop the sidewalk on March 5.

  • A teacher who lives in northeast Omaha’s Minne Lusa neighborhood was sent a $1,048.32 bill for clearing a sidewalk on Jan. 25.
  • An Iowa investment firm that owns commercial property near 50th and L Streets received a $7,129.92 bill for clearing sidewalks around the property on Dec. 11.
  • MOBECO Industries, which owns a building at 18th and Leavenworth Streets, received a $5,214.72 sidewalk bill. It was later reduced to $3,441.72.

MOBECO has sued the city in Douglas County District Court, arguing that the city violated its due process rights by not giving the property owners notice and time to clear the sidewalk.

As a matter of practice, Public Works officials try to notify property owners before sending out a crew, but it’s not required under city ordinances.

Company President Bernard Morello said Monday that he pays a private company to clear snow from his property, at a cost of about $135 per job, but that the city’s plows often cover the sidewalk again.

Michaela Bland, a single mom with three kids who lives in northeast Omaha, said she got behind clearing snow this winter and faced an angry landlord after a $1,209.60 bill arrived for the home she rents on a corner lot.

At a recent City Council hearing, she said that she didn’t object to paying but that the price felt “a little high.”

“I tried to keep it clear,” she said, using what she had, a broom and a piece of a shovel.

A city ordinance gives property owners 24 hours after the major streets are plowed to clear sidewalks. The city says it sends out a contractor only when it receives a complaint.

Public Works received an avalanche of complaints about uncleared sidewalks this winter, 2,899. Over the past six years, the next-highest number of complaints came in 2017-18, when the city received 400, based on data requested by The World-Herald.

Many of the snow removal bills ended up before the City Council’s Board of Equalization, either because property owners fought the bill or didn’t pay. About $133,000 of the total reached the board.

The board held hearings this summer to decide whether to assess liens against the properties for the amounts owed.

Some property owners told of dealing with health troubles and hospital stays and returning home to “astronomical” bills.

But people who received the bills will have to pay them if they want to sell their properties, officials said.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who attended the hearings, has proposed a new ordinance that she describes as a better, fairer way forward.

A public hearing on the measure will be held during the City Council’s regular 2 p.m. meeting on Tuesday in the City-County Building at 1819 Farnam St.

Melton’s proposed ordinance would require Public Works to each year determine the market rate for removing snow from sidewalks at various depths.

The city would still have to clear the sidewalks, using a contractor or Public Works employees, but property owners could be charged no more than the market rate set for the year.

To keep people shoveling their walks, the ordinance would add fines of up to $300 for repeat offenders.

Melton said her hope is that Public Works would not be able to accept a bid as high as last year’s without going over budget or using its own employees to clear sidewalks.

Public Works Director Bob Stubbe has said he will aggressively seek bids to do the sidewalk work for the coming winter.

The city is reaching out to small contractors and businesses that have done business with the city and encouraging them to bid.

Jason Armstrong, who owns DPS, the city’s current sidewalk snow removal contractor, said finding cheaper contractors might be tough.

Packed snow from this winter’s snows destroyed at least a dozen of his company’s snowblowers, and he had to keep ice melt in a warehouse for fear of running out. The city used to provide the ice melt but no longer does.

The city also requires the contractor to secure a bond but doesn’t guarantee any pay, Armstrong said. In three of the past six years, the contractor that was selected didn’t do any jobs for the city and wasn’t paid.

DPS was paid $155,462 for this past winter.

But Melton said she wants the ordinance because homeowners and businesses can’t afford unplanned expenses of thousands of dollars.

That could “kill” a business or family budget, she said.

World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.

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