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Detroit Still Buried Under Snow

January 15, 1999

DETROIT (AP) _ Marisha Harris hasn’t gotten her mail for a week and a half. Her 35-minute drive to work now takes two hours, she’s gotten stuck several times and she keeps a shovel in her truck to dig out of streets that haven’t been plowed since 2 feet of snow started falling two weeks ago.

``I don’t know what’s wrong with Dennis Archer,″ she says, joining a growing chorus of complaints about the generally popular second-term mayor who came into office promising to make Detroit a ``world-class″ city after years of fiscal pain, high crime and annual Devil’s Night arson.

By all appearances, Archer had been doing well. Crime is down, new development is up and Devil’s Night has been tamed.

But because of the snow blitz, the city that put the world on wheels hasn’t had enough traction to keep its schools open, get its mail delivered or keep its 1 million residents moving.

The reason is this: Detroit has a decades-old policy of not plowing its residential streets, and the city adhered to that policy even after an unusual 23 inches of snow fell during the first two weeks of 1999.

Archer maintains he’s not to blame for the mess since the plowing policy wasn’t his doing.

But that attitude that doesn’t sit well with residents forced to drive in deep ruts _ when they can drive at all.

``He’s just feeding everybody a bunch of baloney,″ says Miss Harris, 22. She says Archer lately ``has developed this really nasty attitude.″

Anthony Neely, Archer’s spokesman, says the mayor was a victim of his own success. Things are looking up in Detroit nowadays, and people have come to expect to see their streets plowed, he says.

Archer says the plowing policy has been in place since at least the 1960s and was prompted mainly by budget constraints and the need to make choices of where to spend money. In the past, he says, residents haven’t stressed plowing as a top concern.

``If you had to decide between laying off cops and buying a snow truck, or one less truck and keeping an officer, the decision was for the cops or the firefighters,″ agrees Bob Berg, who was Mayor Coleman Young’s spokesman.

City Council member Maryann Mahaffey says the city experimented with plowing side streets while Young was in office. The experiment failed because too many residents park their cars on the street and wouldn’t move them for plows, she says.

As a result, Detroit budgets only $1.5 million to use 59 snowplows to cover main roads. By comparison, Milwaukee spends $6 million and uses 400 vehicles for snow removal. Grand Rapids spends about $2 million and uses 50 snowplows.

Both Milwaukee and Grand Rapids cover fewer square miles than Detroit (Milwaukee has 96, Grand Rapids has 45 to Detroit’s 132), and both have far fewer residents (590,000 in Milwaukee and 190,000 in Grand Rapids). But both plow residential streets, and both average more inches of snow in January (20 in Milwaukee, 13 in Grand Rapids).

The amount of snow Detroit has gotten has compounded problems. In a city that averages only 10 inches in January, the 23.1 inches that had fallen by Friday tied the mark for the fourth-snowiest January on record. And none of it has melted, thanks to an average temperature of 11 degrees.

Thirteen days after the first foot of snow fell, Archer got the message Friday, went to the City Council and obtained $1.3 million for snow removal. He also got Gov. John Engler to declare a state of emergency and Engler asked federal officials to do the same _ allowing the city to get reimbursed for extra plowing.

Archer said he hadn’t been able to seek the federal emergency declaration until certain criteria were met, and that didn’t happen until the last few days. He did not detail the criteria.

``The city’s inability to plow side streets has created public health and safety concerns in many neighborhoods due to the lack of access for police, fire and other emergency vehicles,″ Engler said in his letter to President Clinton.

Archer, a Democrat, has generally enjoyed a good relationship with the Republican governor. But Engler spokesman John Truscott this week called the crisis an embarrassment and said the fact that schoolchildren couldn’t get to school was ``almost beyond comprehension.″

``I think people do expect a lot from the mayor. He has been a great promoter and marketer, he’s made promises to improve city services,″ Truscott said. ``But I wouldn’t put basic plowing on the list of too much to expect, no matter who the mayor is.″

Longtime resident Ilene Riggins says she’s never seen so much snow fall in Detroit. Still, she says, Archer could have done better.

``That’s his job, to deal with emergencies,″ she says. ``It’s common sense.″

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