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Allentown thousands over snow removal budget

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 26 2014 09:07:54 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 27 2014 08:48:00 AM CST
Allentown budget and finance meeting
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Mother Nature's wrath has dumped 66.7 inches of snow on Allentown this winter and the tab to remove all of the white stuff is getting more expensive by the day.

Managing Director Fran Dougherty told the city's Budget and Finance Committee Wednesday that Allentown is currently between $500,000 and $750,000 over budget in snow removal costs.

"Right now, I'd say it's about $600,000. That's a good number. It's in the range," Dougherty said.

The city's snow removal costs could rise quickly as the National Weather Service forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of snow Sunday night into Monday.

For now, assistant director of Public Work Craig Messenger told committee members that the money for snow removal is currently being taken out of the city's liquid fuels fund and solid waste fund in addition to the general fund.

"So the hit to the general fund is significant, but not crippling," said city council member Peter Schweyer, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee.

Not surprising, the largest snow removal expense is employee overtime and private contractor fees, which currently weigh in at $250,000. Messenger said that is double the normal amount for one winter season.

Costs for materials, such as salt, and repairs to keep trucks on the road, also added to the totals.

Dougherty said the city could apply to the state for reimbursement for some of the costs, but if it did, the amount it might receive would not be known for some time.

"We had some fender-benders and minor accidents from people running into our plows, but no serious accidents," Messenger said.

Dougherty said many repair bills came from smaller equipment breaking down, such as snowblowers.

"It's the smaller equipment that goes down," he said. "We had a couple of trucks break down, but there were no big show-stoppers."

Schweyer did not state what actions would be taken to move money around in the budget to address the snow costs.

City's response praised

Dougherty said the city's greatest asset is its workers, its snow team and its snow operations management.

"It's the best I've ever seen it. These guys know how to handle human capital and the equipment," Dougherty said.  "I was recently asked by 300 people how we determine which streets get plowed first. The whole objective is to get the city back to normal after a snowfall. We plow the main roads, the secondary roads and then the tertiary roads before making second passes. Would we like to get to all the streets at once? Of course, but that's not how it works."

Messenger said 48 trucks were out treating and plowing Allentown streets during recent snowstorms, an increase of 10 trucks over previous years.

"The Parks Department had 12 trucks out there. Without them, I don't know where we'd be," Messenger said. "We had employees from the water department, recycling, traffic and building maintenance helping out."

Both Dougherty and Messenger praised city administration for putting up snow removal workers in a nearby hotel, giving them the chance to rest, shower and eat before tackling another shift without needing to travel home.

"The administration really stepped up. Without that, we'd have been in a big pickle," Messenger said, adding that worker morale has been high for the majority of the winter storms.

"This past weekend, I had to give them off. They were pretty well shot," Messenger said.

Messenger said the city never ran out of salt, but did mix it with anti-skid materials.

"The biggest issues were the (low) temperatures when the snow was falling and the issues with ice," he said. "You wouldn't believe the issues we had with ice; the treacherous ice packs."

Potholes are the next big problem

Messenger said the road department is now trying to address the potholes that have sprouted up all over city roads.

"We have a lot of potholes out there. We're trying everything we can. We've got four crews out there daily dealing with potholes and this is just the beginning," he said.