INSIDE THE BUREAUCRACY: City Won’t Allow Councilmen to Buy Snow Sweepers for Bike Lanes

How Council Member Ben Kallos feels right now.
How Council Member Ben Kallos feels right now.

The city’s plan for clearing snow from two of the busiest bike lanes in town is simple: pray for warm weather.

First and Second avenues will not be getting the narrow-gauge snow plows that two Upper East Side Council Members have funded because, get this, city rules bar the use of council members’ discretionary capital money to purchase equipment with detachable, swappable seasonal attachments.

“It’s total bullshit. I feel like Charlie Brown — and Mayor de Blasio is Lucy,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, whose constituents urged him to buy the $143,000 Multihog snow plow, plus its $30,000 snow plow attachment, as part of the participatory budgeting process in 2020. When the balloting was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kallos and his East Side counterpart Keith Powers allocated the funds from an account of capital money they both control.

But the city won’t take the cash, for reasons that would impress even Franz Kafka.

According to Laura Feyer, a mayoral spokesperson who handles questions for the Office of Management and Budget, city officials are unable to use capital funds for items like a Multihog because the working piece — for example, the snowplow on the front — is detachable. The rule is right there in Comptroller’s Directive 10, a 2011 document, and a subsequent “frequently asked questions” explainer.

“The vehicle [must] function for its intended purpose at all times,” the document says. “Removable objects that are seasonal, or are only periodically attached to the vehicle, are ineligible.”

Council Member Ben Kallos (inset) and his dream machine.
Council Member Ben Kallos (inset) and his dream machine.

As Joseph Heller might have said, that’s some catch, that Catch-22: The city can’t use capital money to purchase vehicles that have multiple seasonal uses … even though the city has multiple seasonal needs. And the city has such equipment already.

“We’ve already bought these things for the Parks Department,” Kallos said. “I sent OMB a picture of the Multihogs we bought for the Parks Department — with the snowplow attachments on them!”

The Parks Department has Multihog vehicles with detachments, as this photo shows.
The Parks Department has Multihog vehicles with detachments, as this photo shows.

Feyer wanted to make it clear that the mayor’s office is not doing anything inappropriate.

“OMB is not ‘blocking’ the purchase,” Feyer told Streetsblog. “The vehicle itself is capitally eligible [but] because it’s removable, the attachment is not capital eligible. We gave this explanation to the City Council in December.”

As such, Kallos is simply asking the mayor’s office to figure out a different way to fund the object in question: the $30,000 snow plow/sweeper attachment.

“If I can’t allocate it as capital money, fine, I’ll give them the money any way they want,” he said. “It’s a $94-billion budget and the fact that the city can’t find $30,000 to buy a plow attachment to keep cyclists safe is a joke.”

Kallos said his urgency on the Multihog was intensified after the December snowstorm, which left bike lanes completely unswept for days, long after the Department of Sanitation had cleared roadways for car drivers. At the time, a Streetsblog investigation revealed that the agency does not have sufficient equipment to clean narrow bike lanes of snow. (And, by the way, this is a long-standing multi-year problem.)

Kallos is convinced that OMB is adhering to the letter of the law because the Sanitation Department simply doesn’t want the equipment — because then it would have to do the work.

“DSNY originally said it couldn’t store a Multihog, but they stopped saying that when they saw we were serious,” Kallos said. “Then they said they don’t have the staff. They are trying to go back on their word. They don’t care about cyclists, and they don’t care about how cyclists get to work or home in the snow. They are talking about doomsday cuts to public transit and yet they are refusing to take money from an elected official to plow the bike lanes when people may not have public transit.

“During the storm, our bike lanes were hazardous, which upset me because that’s what the Multihog is for!” Kallos said.

A spokesman for the Department of Sanitation disputed Kallos’s overall description of the agency’s lack of concern for cyclists.

“DSNY is looking at all options, as always,” said the spokesman, Joshua Goodman.

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