Warm winter saves time, money for public crews

Monday, January 9, 2012

This winter's dry, warm weather has kept city and county snowplows off the roads, freeing up time and money.

City of Le Mars workers have gotten more outside work done and are completing projects in less time, said Steve Hansen, public works superintendent.

"We got the lighted Christmas decorations taken down earlier and it takes a lot less time when it's not cold out," Hansen said.

Workers haven't had to wear their heavy clothing while working outside, either, Hansen said.

City crews remove trees from city right-of-way in the winter months.

The work began sooner this season than the traditional February tree time.

The warmer weather also means city crews aren't changing equipment between snow removal and tree trimming, Hansen said.

"We have a lot more continuity this way -- we don't have to stop and start the work and put boxes for snow removal back on trucks and things like that," Hansen explained.

If warmer temperatures and less snowfall are a continuing trend, Hansen estimates in another week to a week and a half, tree removal could be done.

"We usually grind the stumps later on, more towards April," Hansen said.

Some public works staff traded snow plowing trucks for power tools to remodel the upper level of the Le Mars Convention Center.

The latest part of the renovation involves replacing the stainless steel bar area.

"We're doing all the labor as far as the woodwork and building tables and the bar; anything wood and steel, we're doing,' Hansen said.

The warm weather with less time spent plowing snow has allowed the public works staff to catch up on equipment maintenance.

"In a summer without a lot of rain, you don't get time to work on stuff inside, so we let things go a little longer," Hansen said.

Other winter projects have included replacement of street signs which are faded or aren't reflecting light.

"There's very little frost in the ground so you don't have a lot of problem putting posts in," Hansen said.

The public works budget doesn't have a specific line item for snow removal costs.

Hansen budgets $65,000 for operating supplies.

"Roughly $30,000 to $35,000 of that is salt," Hansen said.

The purchase was made in July.

Whatever is left from this season's ice-control will offset spending next year, he said.

People have asked Hansen to have the streets swept due to the warmer weather.

The street sweeper was winterized for cold storage so it's not possible to put it out on the streets.

"I can't have water in the machine because I don't have a place where it's warm to keep it," Hansen said.

There have also been a few calls to the city about landscape waste disposal.

"They can rent a key at city hall for the site near the Riverview Ball complex or take the materials to the landfill," Hansen said.

On the county side, the fact that there hasn't been much snow removal this winter led to an about 15 percent savings in December for the Plymouth County Secondary Road budget.

Tom Rohe, county engineer, estimates that savings could be in the ballpark of $50,000 to $60,000 for the month of December.

"Last year by the time we hit February we were beyond our budget amount," Rohe said.

He noted road crews did put in hours when snow fell across the county in early December.

"This wasn't a cheap snow because it had a lot of moisture and it froze down and we had people working on that through the weekend," Rohe said. "We also had to get it off the roads and we went through a fair number of blades in order to do that."

Currently even though road crews are not removing snow, motorgraders are still blading roads using man hours and fuel, he said.

"But their fuel usage is about half or 60 percent of what it is when they are plowing snow," Rohe explained. "We're not running 14 trucks on a route right now so our truck usage and fuel usage is quite a bit less."

Winter's not over yet but if snow removal costs are held down, any savings will be used for additional construction work such as replacing bridges with culverts and pavement repairs, Rohe said.

"We are going to need to some additional concrete pavement repair that we held off this year because we actually went over our budget on that," he said. "We still have quite a bit in the eastern part of the county to repair yet."

Rohe, Plymouth County engineer more than 35 years, said he can't remember a winter as warm and open as this one.

"We have almost always had some snow through the holiday week," he said. "It's been very unusual. Our ditches are completely open at this point."

Although road crews aren't plowing snow, they are busy doing other work such as brush and tree removal to care for county roadways, Rohe said.

"At least we're doing some work that is kind of positive," he added. "We could stand for another month or two of this."

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