Would Buffalo property owners be willing to pay to have the city remove snow from their sidewalks?
The question is being discussed quietly in City Hall as officials search for solutions to one of the most common winter gripes -- snow-encrusted sidewalks.
Buffalo public works officials have been considering a strategy that is used in a nearby city.
When more than three inches of snow falls in Rochester, the city sends out private contractors to plow all sidewalks outside homes and businesses.
But there's a cost. Property owners pay a separate user fee based on the length of their sidewalks. The typical home pays under $11 a year, said Rick Saltrelli, operations director for Rochester's Department of Environmental Services.
"You can't even get a kid to come out and shovel your sidewalk for that amount," said Saltrelli, adding that the service has been well received by most property owners.
In Rochester, it is not an optional program. The city plows all 878 miles of its sidewalks, and property owners are required to pay the user fee. Crews use small tractors that are designed to travel down narrow paths in orchards.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said he has no intention of proposing a mandatory program. Signing up for sidewalk-plowing service would be strictly voluntary, and Brown said he is not even sure enough people would be interested.
"Everyone wants to have snow removed from their sidewalks, but I'm not sure how many people would be willing to pay," Brown said.
Rochester's costs are kept down because a typical tractor-plow can clean nine miles of sidewalk in five hours. If plows had to zig-zag around properties that weren't part of the snow-removal run, the chore could be more costly and time-consuming.
"I don't think [a voluntary program] would work," said Saltrelli. "These plows go from the beginning of the street to the end of the street."
Exempting some properties from sidewalk snow removal would be an "operational nightmare," he said.
Logistics would have to be studied before launching a voluntary program, said Steven J. Stepniak, Buffalo's public works commissioner. He said he has asked city lawyers to review the idea and provide input. He also would like to visit Rochester -- especially after a heavy snowfall -- to see how the sidewalk-plowing program works.
A West Side resident who sits on Buffalo's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board is encouraging the Brown administration to move forward with the optional program.
"I'm sure that many senior citizens who are not strapped for cash would jump at the chance," said Suzanne Toomey Spinks.
But she thinks any program also should include more vigorous enforcement of a city law that requires people to keep their sidewalks clear of snow.
"Our elected officials haven't had much of a backbone about sidewalk enforcement," said Spinks. "They don't push it, because they don't want to be unpopular."