City budget for snow removal on track … so farIn a work session before Tuesday’s formal City Council meeting, City Street Supervisor Les Peterson and City Engineer Jim Prusak explained how the city’s public works department tackles snow.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Cloquet City Engineer Jim Prusak budgets for a “normal” winter, therefore the late season snow hasn’t affected the city’s budget … yet.
Prusak told Cloquet City Councilors and Mayor Bruce Ahlgren that before the snowstorm at the end of last week, the street department had used up $13,200 of a $21,500 overtime budget. However, with the storm and staff working long hours Friday and Saturday, it added another $7,500 in overtime.
“That last storm was the worst I’ve seen in probably 10 years,” Prusak said. “Wet, heavy snow in 35-degree weather. Many roads Friday afternoon were in horrible shape. Crews worked from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and another 12 hours on Saturday. By then [Saturday], things were starting to come around.”
In a work session before Tuesday’s formal City Council meeting, City Street Supervisor Les Peterson and Prusak explained how the city’s public works department tackles snow, an hour-long discussion that ended with a talk of whether or not the city should require residents to clear their own sidewalks and/or possibly get involved in clearing some of the more significant walking routes itself.
Peterson said city plows normally hit the streets by 4:15 a.m., tackling the major thoroughfares — plus the areas surrounding the schools and Pine Tree Plaza — before plowing five different residential routes through the city. If there are fewer than three inches of snow, Peterson said the city doesn't plow, instead it sends out sanding trucks.
Councilor Kerry Kolodge asked if the street department ever considered starting earlier, closer to the 3 a.m. hour that cars are no longer allowed to be parked on the street during winter.
Peterson said it is a possibility, but an earlier start might not give the downtown merchants time to clear their snow before city plows begin removing it. As well, it would result in more overtime and longer hours for street and utility department employees who work to clear the snow.
City Administrator Brian Fritsinger explained that city snow plow drivers — who are also union members — are paid overtime for their early start, then work a full day shift, meaning they’re on the clock for roughly 12 hours straight. Under the terms of their contract, the city is not allowed to bring them in early and release them early; they have to work their full scheduled shift.
“I would tell you, after 12 hours behind the wheel [of a snow plow or city truck], you start getting a little punchy,” Prusak said. “[State] snowplow drivers might do longer shifts, but they’re basically driving in a straight line. We do circles.”
The residents of Cloquet “expect to see bare pavement,” he added, noting that the city holds itself to high standards in terms of clearing the road.
“I see it as a safety issue for [our citizens],” he said
Although he said the overtime budget is “right on target” for the year, Prusak noted his sand and salt supplies are running low. The city has gone through roughly 625 tons of salt so far this season and nearly 2,000 yards of sand.
Councilor Dave Manderfeld raised the issue of clearing sidewalks toward the end of the work session, pointing out that the city expects its citizens to keep their lawns mowed — and sends them notices when they don’t — yet doesn’t require them to maintain walkable sidewalks in winter. It’s a safety issue, he said, and an accessibility issue for handicapped citizens.
“People are going green, trying to get fit, focusing on more sustainable lifestyles,” Manderfeld said. “They want more connectivity, more accessibility. We can’t just walk away [by not requiring sidewalk maintenance] — it’s irresponsible.”
Staff and elected officials also discussed the possibility of the city clearing sidewalks on a limited number of main routes in the winter, touching on how much staff time and what kind of machinery would be required.
“Obviously, this is an additional service,” Ahlgren pointed out toward the end of the short, to-be-continued-sometime sidewalk discussion. “For the last seven or eight years, we’ve been talking about how to reduce services. This is the first time we’ve talked about adding something. It will add costs.”
During the formal meeting Tuesday, Councilors and the Mayor took the following actions:
+ Accepted a petition from residents requesting paving of West Taylor Avenue and referred the request to the City Engineering Department for review and a feasibility study.
+ Set a public hearing for May 7 on a proposed city tax abatement program of the increase in property taxes caused by new development on land owned by SpecSys at 1111 Cloquet Ave. According to city documents, the company is requesting full tax abatement from all taxing jurisdictions (city, county and school) and suggests that the initial assessed value of the building should be $0 since it was under discussion for possible demolition before the city sold it to SpecSys on a contract for deed. The city also gave the company two $100,000 loans to remodel the building and set up the office, which had previously housed the Curves for Women workout facility.
The city’s current tax abatement policy is to rebate the difference in value between the assessed value before and after improvements are made.