While officials expect the pending addition of six new pieces of snow removal equipment through $840,000 in leftover funds to improve the city’s overall response and save on overtime costs, the rising age and questionable fitness of the existing fleet, the DPW chief says, could make the net gain to the department, city streets and taxpayers negligible at best.
“We’ll be lucky if it’s any additional trucks by the time the dust settles,” Paul J. Moosey, Department of Public Works & Parks commissioner, told the Sun Saturday morning. “It’s possible we could lose that many [three] to major breakdowns.”
The City Council last Tuesday, May 10, authorized the transfer of $837,315 from the snow account to the street account to purchase equipment normally included in the capital budget.
The new equipment, as requested by Moosey through City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., includes three heavy-duty trucks with snow equipment attachments ($539,631), two sidewalk plows ($260,092), and a brine maker ($37,592) — a machine that produces liquid salt for a pre-treatment solution for the city’s roads.
Augustus said in his communication to councilors, “This pre-treatment will dissolve early accumulations of snow and prevent bonding that will result in shorter clean up time.”
“Adding equipment that can pretreat before a storm begins could allow DPW to get ready for an overnight storm during the day, thereby reducing overtime,” Moosey said in an email through city spokesman John Hill earlier last week.
Hill said the equipment will be expanding the current fleet and will not be replacing any older equipment. The equipment will be purchased, Hill said, “before next winter, but we don’t exactly know when.”
Moosey, reached via phone Saturday morning, May 14, said the equipment at the department’s disposal is rapidly aging. He said one of the trucks experienced engine failure last winter and is unlikely to be repaired.
“The head of our fleet tells me that most of them are old enough to vote,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but most of them are quite old.”
The transfer and purchase come amid a “top-to-bottom” review of the city’s snow-removal efforts this past winter, during which the city faced heavy criticism. Hill said Friday the review would be completed in 60 to 90 days.
Asked about the city’s treatment of roads in light of the snow removal budget surplus, Hill said, “Money is never a consideration when they’re planning for how to respond to a storm. Whether we were $1.3 million under budget or $3 million over budget, the response would be the same — they do what’s most appropriate given the forecast, given the time of day, time of year, and other factors. Money is never one of those considerations.”
The city has acknowledged it is behind the times when it comes to pretreating roadways before snowfall. The addition of the brine maker, Moosey said, would allow workers to cover all the city’s streets with a water-salt solution designed to thwart freezing and slippery conditions.
The brine maker is a stationary piece of equipment that should allow all available trucks to deliver the solution, Moosey said.
District 3 Councilor George J. Russell, who voted against the motion to transfer the funds because, he said, last winter’s DPW&P operational problems are still not resolved, noted the extra snow funding could be better spent.
“When push comes to shove, when the streets aren’t plowed properly, the folks we represent obviously want to talk to the members of the City Council very loudly and clearly,” Russell said in a phone interview May 11.
In response to a similar claim Russell made at Tuesday night’s council meeting, Augustus said, “While we are doing a top-to-bottom review [of the operations], there’s no doubt that we need equipment and that we need new equipment.”
There are no requests for further personnel in the fiscal 2017 budget, Moosey said. Last fiscal year. The DPW&P employed 197 in fiscal 2016.
“There is no need to add personnel for these pieces of equipment. In fact, adding equipment that can pretreat before a storm begins could allow DPW to get ready for an overnight storm during the day, thereby reducing overtime,” Moosey said through Hill.
About $481,000 is appropriated for snow removal overtime in Augustus’ proposed budget, the same as last year. Some $654,000 was spent in FY 2015, when nearly triple the amount of snow pummeled New England.
Snow removal expenses are set a $4.2 million, $200,000 more than last year. Overall, the DPW&P fiscal 2017 proposed budget is $13.2 million, about $1 million more than last year.
This past winter, Worcester saw 36.2 inches of snow over the course of 11 snowstorms, according to city data. The city spent $2,983,959 of the $4 million budgeted for last fiscal year.
Councilor at-large Michael T. Gaffney requested a report on the accounting of the snow removal funding at Tuesday night’s council meeting.
“Quite frankly, the fact that they’re moving operating costs and capital, it seems to me that in every single way they really want to preserve a tax increase,” Gaffney said.
“The operating costs are supposed to be for operations. These one-time expenses shouldn’t be part of the operating costs.”
Despite a more than six-foot drop in snowfall between the winter of 2014-15 and 2015-16, the city’s problems this past winter reached the point where Augustus issued an apology in December and later suggested to Worcester Magazine’s Walter Bird and WCRN-AM 830 radio host Hank Stolz that personnel changes could follow an April 4-5 storm that resulted in what many called unsafe driving conditions.
Russell said he took issue with the agenda item itself being listed under finance items as an operational transfer instead of a communication directly to the council from Augustus outlining his proposal to purchase new equipment.
“With things like this, you have to wonder if this equipment could have been financed. The bottom line is that the taxpayer would be better served if this item went to the Public Works Committee,” Russell said.
District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen, who supported the city manager’s request to transfer the unused money, said in an email to the Sun: “Those pretreatments will help lessen the snow and ice buildup on our streets until the plows can reach them.
“I expect this to cut down on the number of fender-benders and other accidents that traditionally occur early on during a winter storm,” Rosen said.
Like Russell, though, Rosen said the city still must develop a “completely revised” plan to improve the DPW&P’s lackluster response to last winter’s storms. However, he credited the purchase of the new equipment as a step in that direction.