Spokane’s decision to call in private grader operators to help clear roads adds an extra financial burden in an already cash-strapped year. But officials say the need to maintain passable streets is one of the few good reasons to dip into reserves.
The city put grader contracts out to bid this fall and is paying seven companies between $95 and $125 per hour for each of a dozen graders. That’s for use of the equipment and the staffing to operate them. The city also is using its plows and 10 of its own graders.
The plan likely will come to around $30,000 a day.
“It depends how long it takes, how long they’re out there,” said Street Director Mark Serbousek. “We’ll be running them 24 hours a day until we’re done.”
“That could be up to five days,” Serbousek added. “We’re in untested territory here. Every snowstorm is different.”
City street reserves, which benefited from a mild winter last year, should cover the costs of the recent storm, said Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley. If the winter continues on its current harsh path, the city could dip into its emergency reserve fund, which is about $15 million.
“That’s exactly why we have a contingency reserve,” Cooley said.
Thursday was the second time in three years that Mayor Mary Verner called in private companies to help clear city streets. In her three years as mayor, Verner has presided over snow removal efforts for the snowiest winter, snowiest December and snowiest November in city history.
The city began to prepare contracts with grader operators in advance after citizens complained about the city’s slow response to a storm in January 2008.
The grader contracts for winter 2010-11 are set to be approved by City Council next week. Serbousek said the city is working under those deals and he doesn’t expect complications.
In the 1990s, Spokane changed its snow removal fleet from a force of mostly graders to one with mostly truck plows. City officials say plows are faster and cheaper to operate, but in certain situations – like Thursday’s – graders work better.
Verner said keeping private grader operators on call is the most responsible option.
“For us to keep that kind of equipment and that kind of personnel on staff at the city is something that our city cannot afford.”
Layoffs at the end of the year will eliminate 14 street department positions, although only six of those are currently filled.
Serbousek said in the event of a big storm next year, the city will continue operating all its plows and graders.
“We will just be pulling additional resources from other departments,” he said.
Spokane County called in two private grader operators on Thursday under existing contracts. Two more were expected to start today, said County Commissioner Todd Mielke.
He said money for grader operations will be covered by the county’s road fund, which is funded largely by property taxes and is separate from other county funds.
Mielke warned that the weather forecaster that the county contracts with has suggested large snowfalls are possible next week.
“We are asking people to prepare,” Mielke said. “Make sure your transportation is viable to get through the weather if you need to get out and about.”