Shorthanded, staff is getting caught up with plowing and frozen water lines
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
In addition to more than normal snow events, below average temperatures and frozen water pipes, the Little Falls city street crews are working with a reduced staff.
The crew usually numbers 10. Supervisor Bill Doroff retired recently after 43 years, and has not yet been replaced. Another crew member has been out with an injury and recently, a funeral and a vacation planned a year ago, brought the number down to six during the last winter storm (Feb. 20-21).
“It’s just been a tough year with people out,” said City Administrator Dan Vogt. “That has been difficult for various reasons, plus we’ve had so many snow events; that really makes a difference.”
With the plowing comes frustrations from residents, when they’ve cleared their driveways and the plow comes through to widen the streets and blocks them again, said Vogt.
Council Member Loren Boyum said he and another council member drive around the city before meetings.
“Quite frankly, I’ve been impressed with the snow plowing. The concerns that I’ve been getting complaints about are areas such as the Edgewater area, that are being plowed later and later in the day over the past couple of years.,” said Boyum. Once, he said, he received a report of a mail carrier having to park in the middle of the street to deliver the mail.
“We’re short two or three plow truck drivers and Bill Doroff has retired,” said Boyum. “The snow this year is obviously worse than last year.”
Also to consider is the Belle Prairie annexation. “More streets to plow and fewer people,” said Boyum.
“We’ve got a lot of streets, limited staff and equipment to work with, and tremendous amounts of snow, so the logistics of getting that job taken care of involves a lot of factors, that maybe we can’t control the way we’d like.”
Boyum called it “A set of circumstances that have come together in the right way to cause the most problems to the most people.”
Despite the problems residents are experiencing, “People have been really, really good, even though it’s desperation measures for a lot of people in town,” said Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem.
People understand “That these guys are busy and doing a lot of overtime. They’ve been going at a steady pace trying to get everything done,” she said.
“I’ve just got to say we’ve got a wonderful staff that we’re able to keep up that kind of pace and get the job done,” said VanRisseghem.
Public Works Director Jerry Lochner has been working to fill in for Doroff until a new person is hired. Doroff’s experience is missed, he said.
“We’ve got good guys (on the crew),” said Lochner. “We’re getting caught up. When you’ve got broken water mains and frozen water lines and all of a sudden we had three of the four guys gone who were truck drivers, the other guys put in some long days.”
Lochner said the crew got it plowed, but it’s not the same when someone is plowing an area they are not accustomed to, it takes longer and there are fewer trucks out to do the work.
“We got downtown cleaned up and the water freeze-ups,” said Lochner.
Another ongoing challenge is plowing to widen the streets once the initial plowing is done.
Lochner said parking restrictions were put into place the last week of February and will be the first few days of March, to clear areas where people park on both sides of the street and emergency vehicles get through.
“We want to make sure ambulances and fire trucks will be able to get through,” he said.
“We do get lots of people who call because we put windrows back in front of driveways — it’s part of what we get for living in Minnesota where it snows,” said Lochner.
“If we were to go so slow that we would move the snow away from driveways, we’d have to double our crew and more — we’d never get done in eight hours, not even in 16 hours,” said Lochner. “It’s not practical.”
He said he understood it was an aggravation for people who had cleaned their driveways only to have them plugged by the snow plow.
“We create a problem for the driveways and sidewalks, but we don’t have any other place to put the snow,” said Lochner.
About 40 – 45 water lines have been thawed. As of Thursday, Lochner said the staff was down to “a handful” left to thaw.
“We’re just short of people at the same time we had a lot of freeze-ups and a lot of snow,” he said. “But the guys are doing really good.”
Lochner said the city has a list of properties that have experienced freeze-up problems in the past.
Those who are experiencing water line freeze-up problems, or are concerned about it and are letting their water run, can call City Hall, said Lochner. If on the list from previous years, the city may be able to adjust the water bill accordingly, said Lochner.
The season has been tough on the street department budget, although the city is not in danger of running out of salt or sand, said Lochner.
“I’m sure we’ve spent our budget for this year already,” said Lochner.
“If Mother Nature is nice to us from now on, we might be OK, but we have had to plow and move a lot of snow so we’ve already used this year’s allotment,” he said.
That allotment includes funds for the end of this year — October, November and December — as well.
“Be patient and keep a positive attitude, because it will warm up,” said Lochner. “It will warm up.”
“That’s the wonderful part of this is that it’s going to be behind us in a couple of weeks,” said VanRisseghem. “We’ll have another winter next year and those challenges — it’s Minnesota and we love it, that’s why we stay here.”