Budgets nearly exhausted after blizzard
As drivers, we've seen the snow piled up along Hastings streets, and we've seen the plows and trucks working to clear sight-lines around corners and open up more space for vehicles to get safely through the city. But perhaps we haven't seen the amount of time it's taken road crews to clean up after what became the biggest storm in decades.
A normal snowfall generally takes public works' 10 operators eight to 10 hours to clear, according to the city's website. During the blizzard Dec. 11, they had logged 120 hours on 10 pieces of equipment between 5 a.m. and 4 p.m., said Public Works Superintendent John Zgoda. At 4 p.m., Zgoda pulled all but two trucks off the roads because of the high winds and blowing snow.
"There was no way we were keeping up," Zgoda said.
The remaining two trucks teamed up with public safety, clearing paths ahead of police and fire vehicles trying to get out to emergency service calls.
Those calls are the reason why only one car was towed for violating snow emergency parking rules, said Police Chief Paul Schnell. Most people had gotten their vehicles out of the way, and officers were more focused on responding to calls than having cars removed.
"Towing was not a priority," Schnell said.
Sunday all 10 operators, including Zgoda, were back out. They started at 4 a.m., "and we plowed till we were done," Zgoda said.
They racked up 149 man-hours Sunday. For many operators, that meant a 18- or 19-hour day.
"We normally don't let them go too much over 15, 16 hours," Zgoda explained, and they try to keep the longest day at about 12 hours, but this storm was simply too big.
The sheer amount of time puts public works close to the end of its yearly overtime budget, due to the need to use overtime hours to pay crews who have to work beyond normal hours to keep the roads safe. Each year, the department sets aside funds in an overtime budget that gets used mostly to keep up with storms - snow in the winter and debris in the summer.
"The majority of our overtime is storm related," Zgoda said.
In a struggling economy, public works has had to cut its overtime budget back by about half, Zgoda said. Originally they had roughly $40,000, and now they're down to about $24,000.
"Basically, we've trimmed our overtime budget as lean as we can at this point," Zgoda said.
The blizzard proved it. That one storm alone cost public works about $10,000 in overtime in just two days. The week after, crews logged 26 hours of overtime, to the tune of about $3,200.
"And that's not even counting the wear and tear on any equipment," Zgoda said.
The blizzard virtually exhausted the county's snow removal budget for the year.
"We're very close to running out of our budget," said Todd Howard, assistant county engineer.
In a normal snowfall, it usually takes the county's 28 snow-removal workers 12 hours each to clear more than 400 miles of roads. This storm had those workers out 14 hours a day on Dec. 11 and 12 alone.
"And we've done cleanup all week long," Howard said last week.
All told, the storm racked up more than 1,000 overtime hours for the county. Just getting the roads open cost about 900 hours.
Both the city's and county's snow removal budgets will turn over at the first of the year, so this last blizzard shouldn't affect snow removal in early 2011. Even if overtime budgets were to run dry by the end of December, the roads would still get plowed. In the city's case, the city would have to come up with the funds to pay the operators, who would continue to work until the city directs them to stop. In Zgoda's 33 years here, he's never seen that happen, he said, even though there have been occasions when the overtime budget ran out.
Not done yet
The blizzard may be a few weeks behind us already, but crews are still trying to clean it up, and will be for the next month or so, Zgoda said.
"This was a tough snowfall because of the fact that our trucks and even our single-axel trucks were having a hard time pushing that much snow up over the curb line," Zgoda said.
When the snow gets piled too high on the curb, the equipment can't get any new snow out of the street. Right now, the first priority is clearing snow away from sidewalk areas along the streets. Once that's done, operators will work on widening the streets, so there's a place to put fresh snow. To do that, public works might have to use its blower and blow the piles back into homeowners' yards, Zgoda said.
"We will be working on that when we're not plowing or hauling snow," he said.