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Private contractors help clear up residential areas

The largest snowstorm on record to hit Spokane came just as city and county officials finished scaling back their 2009 budgets.

But if anything, they’re spending more to clear out the snow than they did after a series of storms incapacitated the region for several days last winter.

The cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley, as well as Spokane County, announced Thursday that they had brought in private contractors – at rates of about $125 an hour – to use graders in street-clearing efforts. That step was taken in last January’s series of storms, too, but not until a few days after the storms began.

Leaders said they’d find the money to pay the extra costs and wouldn’t skimp on clearing efforts. Exactly where they’d find the money, they said, would be determined later.

“This is just another hit in an already bad year,” said County Commission Chairwoman Bonnie Mager, who was snowed in at her home near Cheney on Thursday. “It keeps you wondering how many more hits like this are we going to take before winter’s over.”

Officials hesitated to estimate how much the clearing will cost. But Spokane Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said the city’s cost likely will be in the “hundreds of thousands” of dollars.

Crews struggled to maintain passable streets, and throughout the region officials said roads were treacherous and people should stay home if possible. In Spokane, the storm forced most plows to stick to only the most important arterials in an effort to ensure at least a portion of the street grid could be relied on.

“We just thought if we could get a few more routes cleared and keep them clear that would be a better strategy,” said Public Works Director Dave Mandyke.

Spokane County Engineer Bob Brueggeman said county crews made progress Thursday but might not be able to start plowing in flat residential areas until Sunday.

The city of Spokane, however, shifted all its contracted help, which numbered about seven graders, as well as the city’s full crew of 10 graders, into residential areas Thursday. The graders began working in neighborhoods in the far northwest and far southwest. The graders will continue to be used primarily in neighborhoods, Mandyke said.

City and county leaders faced criticism last year from snowed-in residents who questioned why it took so long to start plowing side streets.

Most of the city’s plows will remain on arterials until they are fully cleared, Mandyke said.

Officials decided not to activate the county Emergency Operations Center because fire and police crews remained able to navigate streets and emergency calls were not at extraordinary levels.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said the city set up a command center at its street department where police and street administrators worked to plan the city’s response. She said that effort was made to clear up communication problems that occurred Wednesday after police effectively closed most of the city’s streets without warning other city officials.

Verner, like many other city and county leaders, worked from home Thursday, where she fielded media interviews and consulted her staff. She decided early Thursday to close City Hall. Later in the afternoon, she ordered offices closed today. County commissioners held two emergency meetings by phone to close offices Thursday and today. Spokane Valley City Manager Dave Mercier said City Hall was closed Thursday and a decision for today would be made this morning.

Spokane County courts closed Thursday and today, which county CEO Marshall Farnell called unprecedented. On Monday, the Spokane City Council is expected to consider an ordinance authorizing emergency spending up to $500,000. Cooley said that might come from the city’s $15 million reserve fund.

Spokane’s Human Resources Director Dave Chandler said the decision to close City Hall has a price in terms of productivity, but not much in money. When the city closed Jan. 19 because of weather, city workers who had to work didn’t get an extra day off or extra pay.

Some county employees who worked when the county closed last winter were allotted a vacation day, county spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said. She said officials hadn’t decided if the same will hold true this time.

Spokane will pay overtime to its trash collectors for working Saturday. Garbage service was suspended Thursday. Mandyke said the city plans to pick up Thursday routes today and Friday routes on Saturday.

Verner said she thinks the city has improved its operations since last year. “A year later, I’m even more impressed with what the city is delivering for its citizens. I know that some folks don’t see it that way. Believe me I know,” Verner said. “But from where I sit as the mayor, I’m just really impressed with what they do with what they have.”

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Freeman students march in unity to honor memory of slain classmate Sam Strahan

UPDATED: 9:38 p.m.

Drenched in sunshine and a sharp spring wind, more than 70 students marched Friday out of Freeman High School behind a “Freeman Strong” banner to the same football field where they sheltered in fear last September following the shooting that killed 15-year-old Sam Strahan and injured three girls.