Snowplow shortage linked to budgeting; Capable trucks not all replaced

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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If your street didn’t get plowed during this month’s snow storms, Toledo’s budget-cutting bureaucrats may be partly to blame.

Toledo has far fewer plows for use on residential streets than it did 10 or 20 years ago. The reason: Over the years, the city chose to save money by replacing vehicles that could plow with vehicles that couldn’t.

It saved the city a few thousand dollars on each vehicle. But it meant that streets went unplowed.

“We really could have used those plows out there,” said Bill Franklin, commissioner of the city’s streets, bridges, and harbor division. “They would have helped quite a bit on the residential streets.”

The plows in question belong to the so-called “sister divisions,” the city departments that handle the plowing of residential streets. Their role dates back to the pivotal event in recent Toledo snow history: the Blizzard of 1978.

After that disastrous blast – which created seven-foot snow drifts and wind chills of 50 below zero – city officials decided that their previous strategy of relying almost completely on crews from the streets division wouldn’t work in major snowfalls. It could take days before those crews would be able to even start clearing residential streets.

In December of 1978, the city announced a new plan. Streets, bridges, and harbor crews would still plow the snow off the city’s major streets. Residential streets would be handled by the sister divisions. They were the other departments, like sewer maintenance, water, and parks, that had heavy trucks.

To prepare those divisions, 60 heavy sister division vehicles were outfitted with plows and readied for action in residential streets.

Fast forward to 1999. In the worst parts of this month’s storms, only 15 to 18 sister division plows were on the residential streets. At no time were there more than 29; at times, there were only 12.

“We’ve got garages full of trucks that could be used as plows, if only they had the right equipment,” said Charlie Noble, president of Local 7 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Mr. Noble, whose union represents the city’s snowplow operators, said he thinks Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has given workers short shrift when he criticized the city’s plowing efforts. “Our workers couldn’t do the job they wanted to without the equipment they needed,” he said.

One 1991 internal document shows that the city then had 44 plows at the ready.

Last year, a city survey said that about 40 plows were available from sister divisions. But only 29 were available for use in this month’s storms. “We’re trying to figure out how that happened,” Mr. Franklin said.

One thing that happened is that the city’s fleet of sister division trucks was aging. And when city departments were starting to replace them, they faced a decision when budgets were tight: Do they spend a few extra thousand dollars and have the vehicles equipped with plows?

For many, the answer was no.

“It just wasn’t on the front of our agenda,” Mr. Noble said. “Now we’re playing catch-up.”

Mr. Noble worked in the city’s sewer department in 1991, when it could provide 14 trucks with plows for residential street snow removal. Last week, it could provide only three.

Bob Williams, commissioner of the city’s sewer division, said his department was able to help the snow removal effort in other ways, but had only three vehicles equipped with plow brackets.

“I know in prior years they probably had more of them,” Mr. Williams said. “As the trucks got old and they brought in the new, I’m not sure the new ones that were brought in had plow capability.”

He said there are about a dozen trucks just in his department that could be used to plow if they were outfitted with brackets and snow blades.

Ray Norris, who headed the city’s transportation department for four years in the mid-1990s, said the department provided at least six trucks for plowing when he headed it. For this year’s storm, it could provide only three.

For Mr. Franklin, it’s not difficult to understand how the budget process could lead department heads to not buy a snowplow it would never use for its own purposes.

“They look for places to cut back,” he said. “You’re going to try to get the things that help you reach the goals of your division, and pay less attention to something that helps another division.

“Over the years, the number of plows dwindles down.”

According to Mike Justen, the city’s public service director: “It probably wasn’t a priority back then. This drop in equipment didn’t happen in one or two years. We may have been a little lax on keeping up.”

The numbers have been low for several years, he said, but there hasn’t been any nasty weather “to expose that weakness in recent years.”

In milder storms, crews from streets, bridges, and harbor can help out on residential streets after they are done with the major streets.

But when a series of snow storms over the last two weeks dumped more snow than in all of last winter, that weakness became evident.

“In this case, we couldn’t help on residential [streets],” Mr. Justen admitted. “We were outmanned equipment-wise on the residential streets.”

Last fall, Mr. Franklin and Mr. Justen met to determine if the city would be prepared for a heavy snow storm. Their verdict: The city needed to buy more plows for sister division vehicles.

“It makes sense,” Mr. Franklin said. “That was one of the things we identified early on.”

When the city’s vehicle replacement budget is taken to the council later this year, they will ask that at least 20 new plows be installed on sister division vehicles. And if more than 20 city-owned trucks can handle a plow, they’ll ask for more than 20 plows.

“We’re going to ask for a plow on every truck that can handle it,” Mr. Franklin said.

Even if only 20 plows were added, the city’s ability to clean up after snowstorms would be significantly increased.

The math is revealing. An average plow can complete at least two five-mile routes in a 12-hour shift. If the sister divisions had 20 extra plows, that would mean city crews could cover an additional 400 street miles in a 24-hour period.

Considering there are only 640 residential street miles in the city, those extra 400 miles are no small number.

“It would have helped,” Mr. Franklin said. “We would have been able to respond quicker to the residential streets system. Now, we have an increased awareness of how important the sister division plows are to us.”

The extra plows would be used differently in different storms, he said. In a major storm like the ones earlier this month, they could be used in addition to all the other city and private crews, so residential streets could be plowed much more quickly.

In a smaller storm, they could be used instead of private contractors. The city paid $700 for each five-mile route cleared by a contractor this month, and used contractors on over 100 routes, Mr. Franklin said.

“We filled the gap of the lack of sister divisions with private contractors,” he said.

Mr. Franklin said that adding a plow to a vehicle costs between $5,000 and $10,000, putting the cost of 20 plows at $100,000 to $200,000. It costs less to purchase a new vehicle with plowing capability than to retrofit an old one, he said.

This won’t be the first time the streets, bridges, and harbor division has asked for more plows, Mr. Franklin said.

“We have submitted [budget requests for] plows in the past,” he said. “Somewhere, they got ferreted out. Now, I bet they don’t this year.”

But Mr. Finkbeiner isn’t so sure. He said he doesn’t like the idea of paying for equipment that might get used only every few years.

“I’m disappointed that Bill [Franklin] would react that quickly,” he said. “There were an adequate number of vehicles available this year. I don’t think you buy equipment based on storms that will happen only once every five years.”

He said he believed global warming would reduce the frequency of nasty weather and, thus, the need for more plows.

“I think time will show that this sort of storm was the exception, not the rule,” he said.

But Mr. Franklin said the extra plows will be needed to improve service in residential areas.

“We’re not happy with the way things turned out on the residential streets,” he said. “We only got somewhere around half of what we used to get from the sister divisions in this storm. It would be very advantageous for us to have the sister divisions have more equipment, and that’s what we’re going to do.”