BRUNSWICK – Keeping up with Mother Nature isn’t always an easy task. Just ask plow operators charged with removing snow from city streets while the flakes are still flying.
Though winter may still be several months away, city officials are already starting to consider ways to help the city’s limited road crew keep up with clearing the roadways during severe snowstorms starting this winter. With a staff of just 13 plow operators, the administration told City Council earlier this month that it is considering the possibility of hiring outside contractors who could be called in on an as-needed basis to assist the city’s crews in clearing roadways faster.
Service director Paul Barnett said the move comes in response to Winter Storm Harper, which pounded the city with more than a foot of snow over a 24-hour period in January. During that storm, city hall, the service garage and council members were flooded with calls and emails from residents complaining they hadn’t seen a snowplow even after the snow let up. In some cases, residents said they were forced to miss work the day after the storm let up because the roads were still impassable thanks to 35-mph winds that caused drifts that, in some cases, were 2 to 3 feet high.
Despite the fact that the city’s plow operators worked 12-hour shifts the weekend of the storm, Barnett said keeping up with the sheer volume of snow was almost impossible for his crew.
“This snow was so heavy that two of our trucks actually slid off the roadway and those trucks were damaged,” Barnett said, adding that making matters worse was that all of the city’s plow operators maxed out the number of hours they were legally permitted to drive during the storm.
Though council asked the administration in the days following the storm to consider hiring additional plow operators to make plowing more efficient, Barnett said the high costs associated with having to pay additional salaries and benefits ruled that option out immediately, given the department’s current operating budget.
Hiring outside contractors, many of which would be landscaping companies outfitted to plow snow during the winter months using one-ton pickups, is a more affordable option, Barnett said.
“We could really use them to help us plow all the cul-de-sacs, which would free up our guys to spend more time on the main roads and the rest of the neighborhoods,” he said.
If the city were to utilize outside contractors, Barnett estimates the city could clear the roads up to 50 percent faster. However, as he explained to council, the move would not come without controversy as the city’s plow operators belong to a heavy equipment operators union
“I already let the guys know that this is something we are looking at and they do not like it,” he said. “Immediately, they said this would violate the union contract … and they said they see it as if these individuals get their foot in the door that suddenly that door would be open.”
Barnett contends that is not necessarily the case, however, as city codes provide room to bring in contractors in emergency situations.
“If we put these guys in our vehicles, that would be a very different ballgame,” he said. “But this would be completely separate because they would be using their own vehicles.”
To determine the cost associated with contracting with outside companies, Barnett said the city has elected to solicit a request for proposals from contractors interested in supplementing the city’s plow operators in heavy snowstorms.
According to the plan, Barnett said, the contractors would merely be placed on a list of available operators the city could turn to during severe storms.
“There would not be any retainers involved and these contractors wouldn’t receive any kind of fee unless we call on them to do the work,” he said.
As for liability, Barnett explained that the outside contractor would be asked to provide proof of insurance that would make the contractor liable for any issues that may arise while they are working for the city.
“They would have independent contractor status similar to all the contractors we hire to perform work on city streets,” he explained.
While the administration would still need to seek council’s approval before moving forward with the hiring of contractors, Barnett said the decision makes sense for the city especially given its limited road crew.
“Like I said, this is not a hit on any unions as our drivers worked every bit of overtime they could during that storm and every worker we had was maxed out for eight days,” he said. “Our guys did a wonderful job. The problem is we just didn’t have enough guys.”