Public works play catch-up

The mild winter of 2011-2012 gave public works crews across Anoka County a chance to catch up on tree trimming, brush clearing and vehicle and building maintenance.

“I don’t think there were a lot of challenges,” said Blaine Public Works Director Mike Ulrich regarding this past winter. “We spent most of the winter trimming trees because we didn’t do any of that the year before. It seemed like we were plowing every week and every weekend last year.”

Approximately 86.6 inches of snow fell in the Twin Cities between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011. Only 22.3 inches of snow has fallen since July 1, 2011.

The normal snowfall amount during a full year is 52.8 inches, according to the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen.

Andover streets supervisor Irwin Russell said Andover tries to trim the same trees every two to three years. The branches they chop off are shredded into wood chips used in city parks. They used some of the material this past winter to create a better trail at the Martin’s Meadows open space area in northwest Andover.

Chris Olson, a street department maintenance worker for the city of Andover, said not trimming the trees back causes garbage trucks, service trucks and the city’s own trucks to hit the branches, which leads to cuts in the tree and opens it up for the possibility of getting diseases. Overgrown trees can also block driver’s vision. Olson recalled one overgrown tree that blocked a stop sign.

Andover Natural Resources Technician Kameron Kytonen puts a tree branch into the wood chipper. Photo by Eric Hagen
Andover Natural Resources Technician Kameron Kytonen puts a tree branch into the wood chipper. Photo by Eric Hagen

Trees are not trimmed in the spring and summer because of concern of spreading tree diseases such as oak wilt and Dutch elm disease and getting the leaves in the street, according to Olson.

Ulrich said Blaine did not do any tree trimming during the winter of 2010-2011 but is caught up now because two crews were sent out this winter. They are even ahead by two months in their schedule for removing trees in danger of contracting diseases. This is part of the city’s emerald ash borer prevention program.

In addition, Ulrich said they also cleared trees and brush that were blocking sight lines on rural roads, they got an early start on storm water pond inspections and they began to patch potholes earlier than normal because the city of St. Paul opened its hot mix plant early. The mild winter meant less wear and tear on the roads, however.

East Bethel Public Works Director Nate Ayshford said they were able to catch up on vehicle maintenance, so the street sweepers and road graders were ready to go right away this spring.

Russell said Andover was also able to catch up on basic shop maintenance and painting.

Labor and fuel savings

Public works departments typically hire additional staff during the summer to keep up with grass mowing, roads maintenance and other needs. Seasonal staff are not hired during the winter, so departments make do with what they have and need to budget for overtime hours to account for the late night and early morning plow truck runs throughout the city.

The heavy snow amounts during the winter of 2010-2011 meant higher overtime costs and diesel fuel costs for these large vehicles. The limited amount of snow from this past winter obviously resulted in lower costs.

Andover Public Works Director David Berkowitz said Andover spent $72,000 less on snow and ice removal from January through March of this year compared to the same period in 2011.

Coon Rapids Public Services Director Steve Gatlin said he typically budgets for $50,000 in overtime costs each winter. He only needed to spend about $10,000 this year. Besides a few snowfalls, there were a number of times when the roads needed to be salted because of ice.

Gatlin said the city did not really use less fuel because city trucks were used for other tasks such as tree trimming and moving dirt to spots where water main breaks happened.

After a water main break is repaired, dry dirt needs to replace the wet dirt, he said.

According to Ulrich, Blaine spent $257,800 on plowing, salting and anti-icing labor during the 2010-2011 winter season and only $51,513 in 2011-2012. This includes regular staffing hours and overtime costs, he said.

Regarding fuel for these winter tasks, Ulrich said that Blaine spent $18,404 in both diesel and unleaded fuel in 2010-2011. Even with higher fuel costs in 2011-2012, the city only spent $5,938.

Ayshford said his city reduced overtime costs 37 percent, which was about a $5,000 savings. Fuel costs were 44 percent lower, which was about a $10,800 savings.

According to Ham Lake Public Works Superintendent Tom Reiner, the city typically does not spend much on overtime in any winter because workers are able to plow the whole city in about eight hours and he adjusts employee hours if they had to plow the evening before. However, the department obviously spent less of its allocated salaries on snow plowing.

Reiner said $10,623 was spent on labor costs this past winter compared to $34,788 the winter before.

Ham Lake spent $11,745 on fuel for snow plowing during the winter of 2011-2012 compared to $24,396 the previous winter.

Ramsey’s Public Works Director Brian Olson said the city saved about $22,000 in overtime costs. In addition, it spent about $50,000 less than last winter in regular staffing hours costs. Olson said the department lost a full-time employee last year. Due to the limited snowfall, the city was able to get by without replacing that person. Besides tree trimming, crews were able to catch up on cleaning out storm sewer systems.

Olson said Ramsey spent about $18,500 less between diesel and unleaded fuel than last winter.

Leftover salt

All public works directors said that the savings in salt used would not be seen until this material is ordered for the winter of 2012-2013. Cities order salt through the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s cooperative purchasing program.

Cities have to estimate how much salt they will use.

Cities have areas where the excess salt can be stored in the meantime. Reiner said Ham Lake has approximately 400 tons to carry over to next winter.

Ulrich said Blaine ordered 3,000 tons of salt during both of the previous two winters. Blaine ended the 2010-2011 season with about 750 tons left and ended the 2011-2012 season with about 2,400 tons left.

Ulrich said he has ordered as much salt as possible because the prices have been going up every year, so he tries to buy as much material at the lowest rate possible. Before the 2010-2011 winter season, Blaine paid $62.64 per ton of salt including tax. Before the winter of 2011-2012, the price was $71.41 per ton.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]