Duluth Mail Bag: Snow Removal, Budgets and Bag Fees

Hobbs Mail BagAs a two-time Duluth city councilor, now in my final year of service, one of my goals is to make city government more accessible, or at least help citizens become more informed. I figure there are a lot of Duluthians who would like some simple answers to some simple questions. I learned in school that if there is something you don’t understand it’s likely there are many others who feel the same way. Hence the idea of the Duluth Mailbag column.

I won’t divulge who is asking the questions, but I’ll answer them in this format about once a month. Feel free to put a question in the comments for next month’s “Duluth Mailbag” or tweet me via @Hobbs_Duluth or email me at hobbsforduluth @ gmail.com.

Also, if you want to have a longer conversation, you can sign up for a 45-minute cup of coffee through my 100 Cups of Coffee project.

OK, here we go!

Why doesn’t the city use a “snow boot” or “snow grate” when plowing so I don’t have to clear the intersection or sidewalk access to the street?

Great question! You’ve probably seen someone on social media share a plow driver with a snow boot/grate attachment on their grader and make it look easy to not block driveways or sidewalk access to the road. That person likely also commented, “see, easy problem solved.” I’ve seen the video, and I’ve asked about it (it is an annual question we get around this time).

I’ll preface this answer by noting that nearly anything is possible, but like everything else in your life most things cost money. The reasons Duluth (and a vast majority of snow-experiencing cities) don’t utilize snow boots/grates are:

  • It would double the time it takes to move snow, making snow removal times slower and more expensive since the plows would be operating twice as long during a snow event.
  • They do break down a fair amount, which would add repair costs and limit their availability.
  • They only work with graders. The large trucks don’t have that option, meaning Duluth would have to change its snowplow fleet just for this specific purpose. Graders run $350,000 to $500,000 — not a cheap investment. Graders also don’t have the ability to salt and sand.

Spokane has a news story on the utilization of snow boots/grates.

So, could Duluth do this? Sure, but adding several graders would come at a significant upfront cost and double the time the city takes to plow out after a snowstorm, which also doubles the cost of snow plowing as the plows are not self-driving. The snow boot/grates are also frequently in the shop.

Why doesn’t the city remove all snow from sidewalks?

I get this question every year. It’s likely spurred by a group in Minneapolis asking why Minneapolis doesn’t plow the sidewalks.

I ask the question this way: “What would it take for the city to plow every sidewalk?” It would be in the ballpark of $10 to 20 million to have the city of Duluth clear sidewalks. This would be an ongoing funding obligation beyond the upfront purchase of equipment. Duluth has more than 400 miles of sidewalks and would need to increase sidewalk clearing efforts by 75 percent. That $10 million in the context of what a levy increase would be is around 27 percent — each levy percentage point is between $235,000 and $250,000 (this would be doubled if it were $20 million). Certainly, you could have a variation of the plan and not have every sidewalk fall under the responsibility of the city and it would cost less money to have it cleared.

Could the city, do it? Yes. The city could take $10 to $20 million from another part of a city function (police, fire, libraries, etc.) or it could raise the levy by about 27 to 54 percent.

Where can I find a copy of the city’s budget?

I get this question quite a bit. The 2023 budget can be found online at duluthmn.gov, along with annual budgets dating back to 2011. The final budget approved in December is in process of being posted. It will be one percentage point less than the linked proposal.

Does Duluth get audited?

Duluth is audited annually. Cities with a population greater than 2,500 are audited annually in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. The state auditor’s office conducts these audits per state law.

I thought Duluth only had a plastic bag fee; why does Super One charge for both paper and plastic?

While the Duluth Plastic Carryout Bag Fee Ordinance requires that retailers charge a five-cent fee for every single-use plastic bag, it doesn’t prohibit retailers from imposing additional fees if they so choose. The ordinance is clear that a fee does not apply to paper bags. Retailers may choose to impose a fee on paper bags if they want to, but the city ordinance only requires it for plastic bags.

Thanks for reading. Have a question for the next mailbag? Drop it in the comments section below!

1 Comment


about 1 year ago

About your snowplow comments. I have two questions that can maybe appear in another column. 

The first is why we have so many boulevards still? The reason I ask is because some streets are too narrow for cars to park on one side and cars to go each direction. Why not remove the boulevard from those streets for increased roadway? This would also help for plowing. Imagine if a plow could do the side of the road and the sidewalk all at once. What is frustrating is driving down a main street like Superior and having cars parked so far from the curb that they impede safe travel. Let alone if someone on their fat tire bike tries to utilize all those new bike paths. 

My second question is also related to plowing. Why doesn't the city ever declare a snow emergency? The old excuse that was used for several embarrassing years was that the city had to buy and put up the signs. Well, they are up now, but they are worthless. Let me give the example of College Street in front of UMD. The entire turn lane onto Woodland wasn't plowed, snow mounds on one side are higher than the cars and push them farther into the driving area. It is dangerous. What if the college offered to allow the few cars parked on the street to use their closest lot for one night to allow for snow removal? Wallace is the same way, cars parked at an angle on the snow bank and when school buses come all traffic has to stop to allow them through. It is putting young lives in danger. 

Drive by Sara's Table with people parked on both sides of the road and it is dangerous. Snow pack from November still is sitting there and there is barely one lane to get through. Maybe sacrifice the sidewalks that are not plowed to begin with and push the snow far enough off the street for parking?

I could go on and on, but when a new candidate for mayor brought up the plowing situation it perked my ears. The last few years have been embarrassingly dangerous to drive around this town. Yet, drive Arrowhead Road and you can tell when you hit Hermantown. It actually is plowed and there is a sidewalk.

Lastly, on the Avenues that have steep hills, why make people going up and down the hill stop? College kids are creating a cottage industry for body shops on the East End of Duluth. Heck, 1st street is two ways and still lacks any painted stripes. 

These are real issues that are frustrating all winter long. Thanks for you service!

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