It's a scenario all of Missoula dreads every year. The snow barrels into the valley and the temperatures plunge, forcing you out on an Arctic expedition to try and tame the storm in your own small way by clearing off the sidewalk. 

But what if it's the near-record cold we had right before Christmas? Especially if you're elderly or suffering from the cold and flu, and the National Weather Service is telling you to limit your time outside or suffer frostbite?

The storm on December 21st and 22nd was a classic case of civic duty versus bitter cold, with ambient air temperatures hitting -20 below and Missoula wind chills plunging to over 30 degrees below zero. So I put the question to Missoula officials for future reference.

Can the mayor grant an emergency exemption to the shoveling rule?

Turns out, no. 

City of Missoula spokeswoman Ginny Merriam helpfully checked into the question and reports the mayor doesn't have the authority to suspend an ordinance, even in a situation where you could get frostbite in 5 to 10 minutes. She says the only emergency declaration authority would be in the REAL bad stuff, like the 2018 flooding, when the mayor could ask the governor to send in the National Guard. 

However, there is a common-sense approach

Merriam says the city stopped doing sidewalk shoveling enforcement during COVID three years ago, both because of the need to limit exposure for city staff, but also due to some incidents where there was "dangerous belligerence" putting staff at risk. 

That doesn't mean the city isn't enforcing the snow shoveling ordinance

It does mean you have some natural leeway because everything is being handled through the mail. Merriam explains the procedure: 

• First property address complaint: Notice of Violation letter is mailed to the property owner and tenant, if applicable. 

• Second property address complaint: Final Notice of Violation letter and intent to clear snow by City contractor for this and any future violations is mailed to the property owner and tenant, if applicable.

• Third and all future complaints that calendar year: No notice by mail will be given to the property owner or tenant. Snow will be removed by a City contractor, and a bill will be sent to the property owner. The bill will include an administrative fee and must be paid within 30 days or will be levied on the property owner’s tax bill.

So basically, you can still get in trouble if you're completely ignoring your sidewalk responsibilities on a repeat basis, and it's causing a hazard for your neighbors. But, it also sounds to me, that no one is going to show up and "cuff and stuff" you if you can't manage to get out and clear things off in the middle of a vicious, and dangerous storm. 

Although to be honest, in the middle of that pre-Christmas storm, jail might have seemed the warmer alternative. 

Bottom line? Be a good neighbor, especially helping the elderly and those at most harm in a severe storm. That's especially true, considering the serious heart risks for anyone trying to shovel snow, even in more "ideal" winter conditions. 

For information on complaints: City of Missoula's website page Sidewalk Snow Shoveling 

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