Missoula City Council members have lowered proposed fines for property owners who don’t shovel their snowy sidewalks, promising not to punish “Grandma and Grandpa” if they physically cannot get the job done.

The real solution, several councilors said, is for neighbors to take care of one another.

The fines, then, can be reserved for offenders who Councilman Jordan Hess described as “out-of-state, absentee landlords” who refuse to pay for snow and ice removal at their properties despite repeated warnings.

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong said she and others spent much of the day Monday working on amendments to the fines proposed for snow and weed clearing beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

Their original proposal imposed hefty penalties, plus hourly charges from private contractors, if a property owner failed to shovel their sidewalks by the long-established 9 a.m. deadline.

The new proposal dropped most of the fines. Instead, the snow shoveling would be billed directly to the property owner by a private firm on contract with the city. Anyone who failed to pay their invoice could then be assessed a fine of $50 to $150 by the city.

The decision on individual fines would be the purview of the city’s Development Services director.

The changes came after dozens of local residents took to social media to express their concerns about the proposed higher fines. The amended proposal (and any other subsequent changes) will be up for a public hearing on Dec. 17, followed by a final vote of the City Council.

But Armstrong assured residents that the intent is not to punish those who legitimately cannot do the oftentimes demanding duty of shoveling ice and snow from their sidewalks.

“The administrative fee is only assessed after the walks have already been shoveled and if the person did not pay” that assessment fee she said.

And the city, Armstrong added, has “never assessed a fee on an elderly citizen” who could not shovel their walk. “We’ve usually referred them (to a social service agency or nonprofit group) or gone out and shoveled their walks for free.”

The city is going back out to bid the sidewalk shoveling contract, Armstrong said, “in hopes that Missoula Works” will bid. They are “extremely reasonable,” she said, and charge about $30 for a half hour.

“I do want to highlight that this is a very good concept,” said Hess. “This is not about Grandma and Grandpa who are not able to shovel their walks. This is about repeat offenders who are typically out-of-state, absentee landowners who have rentals or other properties who are not abiding by a community contract that we all have, which is that we are good neighbors and we take care of our walks and take care of each other.”

Hess also said he knows the city employees who enforce the regulations, and they are compassionate, caring people.

“It’s important for people to understand that no one runs out at 9 o’clock and assesses anybody a fine,” said Councilman Bryan Von Lossberg. “This is a complaint-driven process. ... The real focus is on serial offenders.”

Armstrong returned to the issue at the end of Monday night’s City Council meeting, stressing that recent weeks have seen a familiar theme play out each week – “a theme of taking care of your neighbor, whether that’s the Salvation Army, the YWCA or your neighbor.”

“If you see a family living in a car, say something or do something,” Armstrong said. “If you have a neighbor who hasn’t come out the last three days and hasn’t shoveled their sidewalk, don’t call Development Services. Knock on their door and find out what’s happening and if they need help. The same with the Salvation Army. Let’s donate the money they need and get this homeless shelter open.”