Aging Tahoe snow fleet spurs exploration of ballot measure
El Dorado County is investigating the feasibility of a 2016 ballot measure that could ask Lake Tahoe property owners to pay more for snow removal services in the Basin.
The county is exploring the option to help fund the replacement of expensive and aging snow equipment in the area. Many of the snowplows and motor graders used to clear snow on the Tahoe side of the county are nearing their replacement date or are already past due.
Out of 23 motor graders, rotary snow blowers and dump truck plow and sanders, six need to be replaced now and 10 are due for replacement in the next two years.
Additionally, four out of the six snow blowers that need to be replaced now are at least 40 years old.
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“Four of them are so far beyond the availability of parts that you just need to shake your head,” said Bard Lower, director of the county’s transportation department. “There are no parts available from the vendor. There are no parts available from scavenging around. There are no parts available from any scrap yard in the United States.”
It costs about $200,000 per year for maintenance on all eight blowers in the Tahoe portion of El Dorado County. But the cost of buying new equipment is also high.
Since 1983, the price of a motor grader has increased from $60,000 to roughly $400,000, according to the county. The price of one rotary snow blower has soared from $100,000 to more than $650,000.
Property owners of the two service areas in the region pay for some of the snow removal equipment with either a $20 per year assessment, if they have property in the South Shore zone, or a $50 per year assessment, if they have property in the West Shore zone.
The West Shore zone encompasses the relatively small area of Meeks Bay, whereas the South Shore zone encompasses a much larger section, spanning from Emerald Bay to Kirkwood, along the edge of Alpine County and over to the Nevada border.
The City of South Lake Tahoe is not included in the South Shore service zone and provides snow removal separately.
Money collected in those county zones can only be used in those zones, and as things stand, it isn’t enough to meet the needs of the service areas.
For this reason, supervisors unanimously granted staff the ability to explore better options for paying for the aging snow fleet. And one option staff will look into is asking voters to approve a property assessment increase.
The county discussed this at a meeting Tuesday.
“The vote may go down in flames,” said Steve Pedretti, director of the county’s community development agency, “but given the age of the equipment we do have and the train wreck we see coming up, I think its incumbent on us to at least put it in front of the voters to give them the information.”
“If they choose not to assess themselves to provide those blowers, then my conscience is going to be pretty clear when the snow removal doesn’t occur because the ancient equipment starts falling apart,” he added.
Lower, who presented the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, said staff didn’t know how much the assessment would need to be raised in order to fit the service areas’ needs, but that’s something the county will find out.
What he did know is that one of the things supervisors can count on in a potential ballot measure is an inflation factor. Otherwise “20 years, 15 years from now we’ll be in exactly the same place,” he said.
Lower noted that despite their age, the machines are in good shape and running without issue for now. The main problem is there’s no quick or easy way to fix a machine if one were to go down. And if that happened, delays in snow removal would be imminent.
Supervisor Sue Novasel, who represents the county’s Lake Tahoe district, said long delays in snow service could threaten public safety.
“Snow removal is a matter of public health and safety, plain and simple,” she said. “It’s not about filling in potholes, it’s about the safety of our citizens, and to me it’s the utmost importance that we make sure our equipment works, and to that end, I support the idea of going out (to explore new options).”
Staff said it expects to return to supervisors in the next three or four months with some options.
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