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City explores ways to reduce snow emergency tows
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A long line of tow trucks brought vehicles to the city of Minneapolis impound lot. They were towed for violating snow emergency parking rules. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
The city of Minneapolis has towed more than 600 cars in the first phase of a snow emergency that went into effect Tuesday night. City employees are gathering at the impound lot to talk to the people who have come to claim those cars. They want to know why so many people have their cars towed and what the city can do to better inform them about snow emergencies.

Minneapolis, Minn. — A caravan of flat-bed tow trucks laden with snow-covered vehicles moves constantly through the gates of the Minneapolis impound lot. There is also a steady stream of people arriving with the help of friends or public transportation to claim their cars. Many of them have stories like Donacien Leby.

"I go to take my car to work and I see my car is gone! This is not right," Leby says.

Leby is telling his story to Lindsey Eberlein, a city employee who takes his story down in a notebook. Leby tells her he didn't know there was a snow emergency. Leby says he noticed his car was missing this morning at 4:30. He says he flagged down a police officer.

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Image Taking a survey

"He said, 'OK, this is emergency. A snow emergency.' I can't go to work," says Leby.

"I really appreciate you talking to me, because this is our chance to figure out how I can help this not happen to you again," Eberlein tells him.

She says some people, like Leby, are openly frustrated about being towed. But she says it's important they hear from as many people as possible. And she says they've been getting some helpful suggestions.

"Well, it's interesting because I talked to a girl who wasn't from Minneapolis, so finding out a little more about how we can communicate with people who are from out of town," says Eberlein. "And then I talked to somebody who suggested that we have some more publicity and that we provide some more off-street parking and that's something we've started to do in the past year is provide ramps where people can park. So perhaps we need to do more of that."

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Image Getting their cars back

The city has created snow oasis areas where people who don't have access to off-street parking can park during snow emergencies. The city also has several ways to inform the public about when snow emergencies are declared and what they should do.

The city's Web site contains snow emergency information and the city mails out information cards to residents. People can call a 24-hour hotline or join an e-mail listserv that immediately notifies them of snow emergencies. Snow emergency announcements are also broadcast on TV and radio news programs.

The city's communications director, Gail Plewacki, says 95 percent of residents get the message about snow emergencies. She says she hopes the surveys will help them figure out how they can help the other 5 percent.

"People are saying, 'I knew, but I thought that I had an hour or two before they get to my neighborhood,'" she says. "Maybe we need to put in our information -- you can't be guaranteed that you've got a couple hours of leeway here before moving your car."

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Jess Brooks says she's glad the city is trying to find ways to prevent tows.

"I knew there was a snow emergency. But I didn't know the street I was parked on was a snow emergency route," Brooks says.

She says the city should provide more detailed information on its Web site and hotline. However, it's too late to prevent her from paying the $133 ticket and towing fee.

"The city makes a lot of money off of it," says Brooks.

City officials say they actually lose money on snow emergencies. Over the past two years, each snow emergency has cost the city, on average, $500,000. During each emergency, the city collected about $365,000 in fines.

St. Paul has also tackled improving snow emergency communications. Last month, the city solicited e-mails from the members of its snow-emergency notification system. They asked for suggestions to help reduce the number of cars left on the street during snow emergencies.

Gail Plewacki says, if needed, Minneapolis can make some communications improvements by the next snow emergency. Other changes, like adding more signs, will require action by the public works department.

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