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A 'long' winter: Season is demanding of snowplow drivers, public works budget

City of Worthington snowplow driver Quinn Kolpin maneuvers through and clears city streets of Saturday's slushy mixture. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 2
Worthington Street Department Supervisor Chad Nickel loads a city plow up with sand on Friday afternoon in preparation for last weekend's forecasted snowfall. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Rain. Freezing Rain. Snow. Slush.

That’s the condensed version of this past weekend’s winter storm brought to the area.

The more elaborate version is that Saturday morning’s wintry mix of rain turned to snow made a mess of city streets, sidewalks and residence’s driveways before freezing over.

According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., Worthington received 3 inches of snowfall during the weekend’s storm. Mix that melted snow with the rain, the liquid equivalent equalled .8 inches.

For the city’s 11 full-time plow drivers and few additional part-timers, the storm marked the eighth weekend over the past nine that some have spent canvassing city streets to ensure safe travel continues beyond what many would consider a “normal” work week.

“This is just a mess,” commented Quinn Kolpin, a Worthington Street Department employee, within his first 10 minutes of plowing city streets Saturday afternoon.

Because the consistency of Saturday’s mixture was thinner than during earlier snowstorms, much of it traveled straight back where it came from: the middle of the street.

It was a prime example of what Kolpin means when he says what may have worked well once doesn’t always work best the next.

“We try one thing — if it doesn’t work, we try something different,” he said about the importance of the ability to adapt.

That was the case for several of the drivers Saturday, as the radio was full of continuous chatter and advice at the beginning of the shift until adjustments were made accordingly to the damp and heavy mixture.

While the slushy mixture was an exception, Kolpin said usually pushing snow isn’t too difficult. The hardest part of the job? Without any doubt, the hours, he said.

“You can kind of expect it, but not always,” Kolpin said about when he and other plow drivers may be called out to push snow for several hours following a snowstorm.

Saturday’s call for snowplows fell under the “unpredictable” category, as the snowfall began to break midday. For Kolpin, the call coincidentally came just as his two-month old son soiled his diaper.

But that’s the reality for Kolpin and other snowplow drivers like him — inclement weather doesn’t always occur at the most convenient of times. It often either pulls them out of bed in the middle of the night or forces them to drop whatever they’re doing at any given moment for some serious seat and road time.

Drivers got a taste of both this weekend. They headed out mid-afternoon Saturday until about 8 p.m. and were back at it by 5 a.m. Sunday morning.

While daytime plowing isn’t atypical, it does create more obstacles than at night. Kolpin carefully maneuvered around multiple cars, garbage and recycling cans and people during Saturday’s plow.

A group of snowmobilers in the plowing path created another obstacle that slightly delayed progress. Considering the consistency of Saturday’s winter mix, Kolpin also had to considerably reduce his speed as he approached a man onlooking as he stood in his driveway.

“We’re always looking out for people that are shoveling their driveway,” he said.

Kolpin earned a few waves or nods as he drove by Worthington residents out shoveling their driveways Saturday afternoon.

He also received something far less friendly. The shovel thrown at his truck wasn’t going to physically impale him, but it served a hurtful message that isn’t too uncommon.

According to Kolpin, snowplow drivers have each seen their share of rude gestures from residents frustrated of the unavoidable effect of ridding city streets of snow: it’s going to spray onto the end of driveways.  

“But at the end of the day, (we) go home and scoop the ends of our driveways, too,” Kolpin said. “Our main goal is to get the snow or slush off the roads so it’s safe for drivers.”

Despite a few frustrated residents and the less than ideal hours, the job definitely has some unique benefits, Kolpin said.

Although Saturday’s slush didn’t apply, Kolpin said for the most part, he receives some personal gratification to see the difference between how the street looks prior to being plowed and after a crew has been by.

It’s also helped the Worthington transplant become better acclimated to the community, where he’s now lived for three years.

“I’ve definitely gotten to learn the town faster this way,” he said.

A ‘long’ winter

How does Worthington Public Works Director Todd Wietzema summarize this winter?

“Long,” he said Friday afternoon from his office as the department continued to prepare for another weekend of plowing.

While the snow itself isn’t a big problem, the constant cold temperatures hasn’t allowed for melting in the streets between snowfalls.

“So that’s kind of been an issue for us,” he said.

With many of the winter storms occurring on weekends, it’s also taken a toll on the city’s public works budget, particularly as it relates to personnel.

According to Wietzema, by Feb. 28, the department had already used 66 percent of its full-time employees budget and 66 percent of its overtime budget.

“We try to do everything we can to keep those numbers down,” Wietzema said. “A lot of it has to do with the timing (of the storms). We’re trying to limit the number of overtime hours and the hours we plow, but we can’t control that.”

Similarly, the department had utilized 49 percent of its overall snow removal budget during January and February. The department’s yearly snow removal budget is anticipated to account for about a six-month snow removal season.

The department has also utilized about 300 tons of salt of its contracted 400 tons.

Wietzema said that amount isn’t atypical, and the city has plenty remaining to sand/salt the intersections and curves as it usually does through the remainder of the season.

Regardless of what time of day the crew heads out, Wietzema would like motorists to consider a few things.

He said compliance with declared snow emergencies has been going pretty well, but it could always be better. He said if cars are removed from city streets, plowing goes much smoother.

He’d also like to see motorists provide plenty of space between themselves and plows, which he said back up and turn around frequently at intersections.

“People get very impatient,” he said. “Everybody is used to getting to places fast and easy.”

Perhaps most importantly, if severe weather is forecast, people need to just stay home.

“Let us do our jobs,” he said, adding praise to his crew. “It makes it easier for everybody.”

County comparisons

Nobles County Director of Public Works Steve Schnieder, meanwhile, shared insights about how the county’s snow removal budget is going so far.

  • The county plans for the year assuming that January-March will require a bigger proportion of snow removal materials than November-December.
  • He budgets for an average year and makes adjustments as needed.
  • Public Works does much more than snow removal, but as snow is urgent and unpredictable, it sometimes means other maintenance projects get postponed.
  • The Public Works budget is higher at this point in the year than usual, which will likely affect the budget of the county as a whole.
  • Snow removal crews have had "a lot of overtime and not a lot of days off." He counted seven weekends this year that the plows have worked. He also said they worked almost every day in February.
  • "Even if it doesn't snow, the wind creates drifts" that the county still has to deal with, Schnieder said, so the plows end up working on days with no precipitation.