Keeping up with Mother Nature
City, county and state deal with overtime hours as workers clear streets, roads
WORTHINGTON — Frequent snow showers and high winds that lead to drifting have kept city, county and state road crews busy this winter to ensure a safe driving surface for motorists.
With plenty of salt, sand and de-icing chemical available this winter, governmental agencies are most concerned about the rising costs in overtime hours.
Minnesota Department of Transportation District Supervisor Tom Zimmerman said Tuesday that labor costs are 20 to 30 percent higher this year because of the frequency and duration of storms causing issues on roadways.
“The way our budget is set up, we’re geared up to take care of snow and ice within reason,” Zimmerman said. “If we have an extremely tough winter, we have to reevaluate what we’d planned to do in the summer. We may have to delay some of the projects we had wanted to do.”
The same is true at the local level. Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder said he, too, is concerned about overtime hours.
He estimated that a little more than half of the department’s overtime budget — roughly $20,000 — has been spent already this year. Most of the overtime costs accumulated due to snow that fell on weekends or holidays, he added.
“When we budget for materials and overtime, we budget for an average,” Schnieder explained. “Some winters we spend less, and other winters we might spend more in doing that.”
“A lot of these small snows are just kind of irritating,” added Jim Eulberg, Worthington Director of Public Works. “It’s as much work to clean up a 1-inch storm as it is to clean up a 4-inch storm.”
As such, Eulberg said it will cost the city more, per inch of snow, to keep the streets clear than it has in recent years.
“You have to run the plows, they have to go exactly the same place, and they don’t care if they’re moving one inch of snow or four inches,” he added.
In addition to the labor costs, there is the added cost of fuel and de-icing chemicals.
“If we spend more for salt and sand, that means we spend less money on some other types of supplies during the rest of the year,” said Schnieder. Higher expenses now may mean a little less gravel is applied to roads this summer, or less bituminous patching may get done, he added.
Both the city of Worthington and Nobles County start with a new budget on Jan. 1.
“The bigger question is how will our budget be looking in December,” said Schnieder, adding that the county’s public works budget is “doing very well” for now.
Eulberg said the city has tried to arrange its scheduling to reduce the amount of overtime paid out. As such, crews may come to work at 4 a.m. following an evening snow to clear the streets. Once their eight-hour shift is completed, the street workers can go home for the rest of the day.
As overtime is kept to a minimum, Eulberg said his budget is “in OK shape now, but the winter isn’t over.”
Both the city and the county budget for labor, fuel, de-icing chemicals, salt and sand to get through the winter months, and both stockpile material prior to winter. The city and the county have long since used up their initial supplies, and Eulberg said the city has purchased four 50-ton shipments of salt and sand since running out. It takes about three to four weeks to get material in, but that hasn’t caused any problems for the city.
The city is using a purple dye additive for this time this winter in its de-icing material, which helps city crews ensure the salt and sand they scatter at intersections and intermittently on streets are where they need to be.
The purple-colored salt and sand mixture could be seen throughout the community on Tuesday morning after yet another snowfall left streets snow covered and a bit slippery.
Schnieder said the county’s mix of sand, salt and chemical has worked fairly well. The sand doesn’t wear off or grind down the pavement, while providing temporary traction, he said. Meanwhile, mixing the de-icing chemical with salt and sand makes the material damp and less likely to skip across or blow off the roadway.
“When it hits the ground, it stays where it goes,” he said.
Salt alone can be used to clear the ice when the temperature is 15 degrees or higher, but when it gets colder than that, it takes the chemical to work through the ice.
Zimmerman said crews are “trying to do the best we can” to make the roads safe for motorists.
“The operators have been working long and diligent all winter long in these storms that keep going back to back to back,” he said. “We’ve had some challenges this winter that we haven’t seen for a while. We all want it to quit.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.