Long winter draining Eastern Iowa government resources

Costs for materials, crews skyrocketing; streets not cleared to normal standards

Published: March 5 2014 | 10:43 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:11 am in

This epically long winter will prove to be the costliest in years for some communities in Eastern Iowa.

While storms have been fairly small, the sheer number and the extreme cold has brought added expenses, and forced communities to look for ways to stretch resources and manage compiling overtime.

"Whether you have 3 inches of snow or if you have 7 inches, there is very little difference in cost for us," said Craig Hanson, Cedar Rapids maintenance manager.

Overtime and supplies are driving the spending, demand is increasing salt prices, and springtime cleaning up, fixing pot holes and repairing equipment should keep the burden of winter going for some time.

This doesn't even include costs to repair water main breaks experienced in many areas this year.

This winter, Cedar Rapids has used 11,300 tons of salt, 8,000 tons of sand and 5,600 hours of overtime to cover 36 winter events bringing 42 inches of snow.  The cost, at just shy of $3 million, is a 58 percent spike from the $1.9 million spent last season, and is the most expensive winter since the $3 million spent in 2008-09.

North Liberty has nearly doubled its spending, from $31,000 on supplies and staffing to an estimated $60,000 so far this winter, according to Don Colony, streets superintendent. It's the most the city has ever spent on winter, he said.

Colony said the city controls costs by waiting until a storm ends to execute the bulk of plowing, and they decrease chemical applications to streets as residents acclimate to winter driving.

"We have storms that last 12 to 14 hours," Colony said. "Our first attack is to make roads passable, but we are not going to put down a whole lot of chemicals only to plow it off in a few hours."

Down in Iowa City, it's a similar story.

Spending on supplies, equipment and overtime is up to $596,334, well above the $485,000 spent in 2012-13 and $285,000 spent in 2011-12. It's the most Iowa City has spent on winter since 2008-09, when high salt prices drove up the total cost to $695,500, said Rick Fosse, director of Iowa City public works.

Snow plow drivers have put in 2,512 of regular time, and an additional 2,338 hours in overtime, and the city has contracted out $31,693 to haul away snow.

"I give a lot of credit to snow plow drivers," Fosse said. "It's been a lot of evenings and weekends, and sometimes 16 hours at a time of very focused work."

The demand of winter has forced tough choices.

Cedar Rapids has not cleared residential streets to the normal standard, as workers must focus on main roads, Hanson said.

Other cities are stretching supplies of salt, which is applied to streets to melt ice, to avoid paying soaring prices to order more. Salt sells for up to $160 per ton right now, well above the $65 per ton range cities paid at the start of the season.

Iowa City has burned through about 3,000 tons of salt, and is conserving the remaining 290 tons by using less and less in a salt-sand mix, Fosse said. Iowa City is using a 20 percent salt 80 percent sand blend, which is less than optimal, Fosse said. Linn County is stretching salt at a 6- or 7-to-1 salt-to-sand rati0, county engineer Steve Gannon said.

By comparison, Cedar Rapids uses a 1-to-1 ratio and dipped to one part salt to two parts sand during the most treacherous part of winter.

Even as winter winds down, these officials are eyeing mounds of work to come.

Hanson in Cedar Rapids expects to collect some 8,000 tons of sand off the streets in a measure to protect the storm water system and keep the roads safe for travelers. Crews likely won't get to residential areas until late May or June, he said. And, the harsh winter will lead to a "bumper crop" of potholes, frost boils and frost heaves, Fosse said.

"The worse the winter, the worse the damage," Hanson added.

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