City of South Lake Tahoe responds to ‘inaccurate information’ regarding snow removal
Seeking to dispel what it called “inaccurate information” on social media, the city of South Lake Tahoe on Thursday released information from the public works department regarding snow removal.
The information — packaged in a question-and-answer format, with responses credited to Jim Marino, assistant director of public works — is intended to address residents’ concerns, according to a press release from the city.
The information came one day after the Tribune published a Q&A with Azril Kalik, city maintenance manager, and in the wake of several winter storms that dumped more than 20 feet of snow in the mountains.
Below is the Q&A released by the city, edited for style and grammar:
Public Works Q & A
Storm event – Jan. 2 through 25
By: Jim Marino – assistant director of public works
Response to Citizen Concerns:
Concern) City has rotary blowers sitting idle at the corporation yard.
Answer) The picture that went viral of several blowers sitting idle was taken while all snowplow graders and loaders were working in zones removing the last round of storm snow. The public works snow removal operation is to plow roads first to maintain travel ways and then widen after storm abates. All six of the city’s rotary blowers have been in operation since Tuesday 1-24-17 and will continue to be in operation 24 hours a day until all roads are widened. There is one blower remaining at the yard which is a 1960’s era machine with a blown motor.
C) The Public Works Department is understaffed.
A) The Public Works Department currently has 26 employees within the snow removal field operations group. We are at the same capacity as we have been for many years. Twenty-two of the 26 employees are full-time city employees while four are seasonal. We have an opening in the mechanics division. We’ve completed the recruitment process and expect to have another full time employee this month. To address that, as well as to supplement our team, we contracted with two heavy-equipment companies to hire mechanics; they have been working nights and alongside our mechanics through the last series of storms.
C) The snow removal operators are new and untrained.
A) About 2/3 of the 26 snowplow operators group have five or more years’ experience plowing for the City, some have much more experience and less than 1/3 are new this season. All employees go through route and equipment training in September and October and familiarize themselves with the patterns. Over the last seven years, some of our most experienced and professional operators retired, as was expected and is customary in business and public agencies. It is always such a loss to lose experienced personnel in any department. Now that most of our operators are fulltime, rather than part-time/seasonal, we expected to retain our current staff and attract new operators as needed.
C) The snow plow drivers make $10/hour and receive no benefits therefore we get $10 worth of service.
A) Wages and benefits of our snowplow drivers are negotiated by their paid union representatives (Local 39). Currently, the base wage begins at $18.40 to $25.96 based on classification, which allows us to compete for drivers and not lose drivers to neighboring agencies. As stated above, 22 of the 26 employees are full-time employees and receive full employee benefits and most of those employees are at the top of the pay scale.
All employees receive overtime. Night shift receives a night shift differential. In big storms such as we’ve seen this January, these operators often receive many hours of overtime, holiday pay, paid time off, sick leave and other benefits; their pay can also be supplemented by advanced education and training and promotions.
C) Hire more people during these big storms.
A) The city has for many years hired “temporary” / seasonal drivers — hired them each fall, train and wait for storms. The Public Works Department implemented a reorganization plan converting most of our temporary/part-time positions to full time to provide a more consistent, stable workforce and develop long-term experienced drivers. Hiring “additional people” just prior to a storm or for “on-call, stand-by” service isn’t efficient and is quite difficult because all operators must have a valid commercial driver’s license, be drug and background tested and also must quickly become familiar with the snow plow patterns. Finding, hiring, training and putting valid commercial licensed operators on “stand-by’ in the Tahoe area is difficult if they are simply being told they “may be utilized for sporadic work when needed.” In addition, during heavy storms like we’ve had, the plowing is even more difficult because the roads, driveways, corners and intersections are hard to see. We do attempt to hire a few temporary “storm-to-storm” drivers in the fall to provide time to train. This year we have a few experienced snow plow drivers who are city retirees back in the seat helping out.
A) First, we know how frustrating the berms are, we live here too, we have driveways too, we too hate those berms. We truly apologize for any large berms throughout this storm. The following is provided to explain how berms occur and the process: Each one of the city’s graders have a “gate” that is approximately 3’ long by 18” high that can be lowered when approaching driveways to minimize berms. Even when the gate is lowered, the snow often rolls right over the top of the gate. However, the operators try to use this gate as much as possible. The recent storm event started with heavy snowfall immediately after a flood event in which the city received nearly 7.5” of rain on snowpack. The equipment was doing all it could to push the heavy snow. The more water content in the snow, the heavier the snow is, making it more difficult to use or drop the gates as evidenced by the number of gates that broke during plowing operations due to the water content. Additionally, when the machine is pushing an amount of snow and the operator comes across a driveway that has not been maintained since the onset of the storm, they are likely not to lower the gate in order to keep the machine moving and lower the chances of a break down. As the storm progressed and the snowpack deepened, the plowing objective was to keep one lane of travel way open — that was the first priority.
Question) How much does the city spend buying new snow removal equipment?
Answer) In 1989 the voters of South Lake Tahoe determined buying new snow removal equipment was something they wanted to invest in and they approved a $20 per year parcel tax assessment, which means it is paid by every homeowner (including second home owners and vacation home rental home owners). These funds are restricted to the purchase of snow plow equipment and have been 100 percent allocated to those purchases and replacement of plows over the years. The current revenue stream from the 1989 $20 parcel tax, generates about $240,000 annually. In 1989, that amount was sufficient to purchase a brand new piece of equipment outright. Today, a grader equipped and sander/plow trucks for our environment costs about $400,000 each, and some cost much more. Therefore, the annual $20 parcel tax revenue is used to pay debt service (loan payments) to incrementally purchase equipment.
This past August, the City Council allocated $1.2 million for new snow removal equipment.
It should be noted that the 1989 $20 parcel tax did not have a cost-of-living increase built in; therefore, the annual assessment has never increased although the price of equipment has more than tripled, the price of gas has tripled and the cost of materials has increased substantially. In order to address this, in 2005, the city went back to the voters asking to increase the annual amount to $40 and allow it to annually increase no more than the consumer price index (up to 3 percent, which would have been less than a dollar each year, in fact there would have been years when it didn’t increase more than 30 or 40 cents). The voters did not approve the increase. Those funds, like the 1989 allocation, would have been restricted for the purchase and maintenance of snowplow equipment and would in total generate about $500,000 each year allowing the city to purchase new equipment more often.
Q) Does the snow removal equipment break down and require repairs?
A) Yes. The snow removal equipment breaks down regularly and requires to be repaired in the field. The equipment is too large to tow back to the city’s maintenance shop and requires mechanics to make the repairs in the field during snow events and snow removal operations.
Q) Can we get more information from Public Works about snow removal, street maintenance and other public works projects?
A) Yes. We will be developing a Facebook page this week to keep everyone updated. We will continue to use this page and other social media to update everyone for the remainder of the winter season.