Snow removal costs remain unknown, with plenty of winter to go
“We’ve been really fortunate as far as equipment goes. Things break when it gets cold. The guys have been really good about being careful.”
WORTHINGTON — While it’s impossible to tell how much snow removal is going to cost local governments this year, given how much winter remains, officials generally agree on one thing: it’s not going to be cheap.
Winter weather events play a big part in that, but it’s also partly a result of inflation, which has driven costs up across the board, said Nobles County Public Works Director Aaron Holmbeck. That includes the price of fuel, gravel, salt and cutting edges for plows, as well as costs for repairing damage to roads with asphalt products of any kind, which have doubled in the past five or so years, he added.
“We can’t plan for everything,” Holmbeck said, explaining that the county’s Highway Department can’t budget for the absolute worst possible scenario every year or its budget would be astronomical. Instead it keeps a bit of flexibility in its budget to move projects around when more snow removal is needed, and the snow removal costs tend to average out over multiple years. Last year, for example, far less snow removal than average was required.
“You end up not doing certain activities that you were planning on doing” when snow removal is costly, Holmbeck said. That could mean a reduction in surveying, maintenance or construction projects.
Other factors include staffing, which is actually down at the Highway Department. That could potentially offset some costs, as well as state aid funding, which increased a lot this past year but is projected to decrease slightly this year.
“Most of the funding that pays for the Highway (Department) budget is state funds,” Holmbeck said.
As of Jan. 27, snow removal efforts in Nobles County were probably twice what they’d be in an average year, he added.
“We’ve been really fortunate as far as equipment goes,” said Cliff Altman, Nobles County highway superintendent. “Things break when it gets cold. The guys have been really good about being careful.”
Altman said one of the greatest evils isn’t necessarily the snow, but the wind, which can drive snow back onto roads, create ground blizzards and even cling to the salt-sand mix on the road, meaning that a measure to make roads safer can, under certain conditions, make it worse. And those conditions aren’t always predictable, either, as weather shifts and changes.
“Sometimes you’re a hero. Sometimes you’re an idiot,” Altman said.
Wind can also extend weather events, putting stress on people tasked with snow removal.
“It keeps on going and going … you never have a break,” Holmbeck said.
Still, the Nobles County crew rarely takes more than 12 hours to clear county roads after a snow event, Altman said.
“They’re just good. They’re hard-working and versatile. They care,” he added.
Holmbeck agreed, praising the county’s great crew that’s very willing to put in the effort.
That crew includes 11 plow drivers, a grounds and maintenance person, three mechanics and one person from another department who can help when the Highway Department is short on drivers, typically on weekends.
Holmbeck is grateful for previous county engineers, who invested in equipment and kept up the fleet.
Altman, too, praised the mechanics who keep the county’s snow removal fleet going, providing oil changes, filter changes, blade replacements and damage repairs in-house, saving money and keeping downtime to an absolute minimum.
The equipment includes 13 plows, one motor grader, three enormous snowblowers — including one on tracks, two skid loaders with blowers and one small tractor suitable for removing snow in tight areas.
“We fabricate things as well. There’s always something going on for maintenance,” Holmbeck said.
How to help
Drivers and property owners have a number of ways they can help with snow removal.
- Don’t crowd the plows.
- Don’t push snow out of a driveway into the street. It is illegal, but it also compacts the snow and forms an obstacle that can actually damage plows, which tend to drive faster on rural routes.
- Clean up around your mailbox, allowing plow drivers to see them clearly and avoid striking them.
- If no travel is advised, stay home.
- Be patient. As Altman pointed out, “We’re trying.”