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Digging out

As municipalities plug away at snow removal, some are struggling to keep up

February 12, 2011
By JESSICA COLLIER and CHRIS KNIGHT, Enterprise Staff Writers

There's a lot of snow out there this winter.

But we can't all make like bears and hibernate until spring. We're hardy Adirondackers, and we have to go about our lives despite the extreme weather.

Which means all that snow has to be cleaned up. Municipal crews from villages, towns, counties and the state, as well as private snow plow drivers, have been working long, hard hours to clean up the snow and make room for more.

Article Photos

Saranac Lake village workers use a front loader and dump truck to remove towering snowbanks at the corner of Elm and Cedar streets Tuesday.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Tupper Lake

In Tupper Lake, the town plows all the roads, and the village deals with removing snowbanks, sanding and clearing the sidewalks.

Town Highway Superintendent Bill Dechene said his plow drivers have been keeping up with clearing the snow from the roads, but now they're having trouble finding places to put it, with snowbanks growing ever bigger. They try to push it off to the side of the road as much as possible when they have time, he said.

Dechene said he's been using quite a bit of overtime to keep the roads cleared. The town board cut one of his full-time drivers this year. He's got a few part-time drivers on call, but there have been a few times he hasn't been able to get in touch with them. In those cases, he drives a plow himself in addition to scouting the roads and seeing what needs to be done before any of the other drivers go out.

"We make do with what we can, with what we have," Dechene said.

The town plows try to clear the village streets first thing in the morning, because the winter street parking ban only lasts until 6 a.m., and after that, they have to worry about cars lining the streets.

Mike Sparks, superintendent of the village of Tupper Lake Department of Public Works, said his men have been starting to clear snow from the main roads at midnight, since there's too much traffic to clear them during the day, then working on side streets and other areas straight through until 4 p.m. every day.

"We haven't had a winter like this in years," Sparks said.

After each snowstorm, it's a little overwhelming at first when the town's plows pile up all the snow, he said.

"Once you get started on it, it kind of falls into place," Sparks said. "When it's first there, you go, 'Wow, that's a lot of snow,' but as we pick through it, it's getting better."

Sparks said his workers concentrate first on clearing snowbanks from the main streets of the village. Then he talks to the school bus drivers and the village worker who sands the streets to prioritize what other parts of the village need the most work after that. They try to find the streets that are the most congested by snow and clear them first, he said.

On Wednesday, they were trying to clear snow from narrow streets like Tallman and Vachereau.

"There's a lot of real narrow streets," Sparks said. "We're just trying to bust them all open."

Sparks said he's also using much of the overtime set aside for his men, but he believes he'll stay within his budget.

"I think we're still OK, but it's chewing into it," he said.

If not, there are contingency funds that could help pay for continued snow removal, he said.

The village clears the snow and dumps it in a lot behind the village garage, which is also used by private plowers. Sparks said that the lot will probably be full by next week, and he's still working on securing another place to dump snow once that happens.

There's only one long-term solution for the snow: melting it. Dechene said he's hoping for spring to start soon, and Sparks agreed.

"Hopefully in another six or eight weeks, we'll be complaining about the black flies," Sparks said.

Saranac Lake

Village Manager John Sweeney admitted Thursday that the village's clean-up operations are behind schedule.

"We're probably not where we want to be," he said. "But as long as it doesn't snow a lot, so we can get out and start getting at some of this stuff, we'll be in good shape. But it's going to take us some time."

Sweeney said the village was in good shape about a week and a half ago, but lost all the ground it gained when another big storm hit Saturday night.

Village crews are now working around the clock, in two 12-hour shifts, to try and get all the snow cleaned up, he said. Water and sewer department workers have also been enlisted in snow removal work.

"Our priorities are maintaining open and safe travel routes first and foremost," Sweeney said. "Then, obviously, preparing for the (Winter Carnival) parade, which involves clearing snow downtown and clearing the parking lots, and then working our way out from there."

In recent days, Sweeney said crews have been moving into different neighborhoods to pick up snow along the streets, focusing on the highest-traffic areas. He admitted that the village has been behind in trying to get sidewalks cleared.

"The complaints have been steady and understandably so, but we are doing what we can," Sweeney said.

Village crews are accumulating "a lot of overtime," although Sweeney said he wouldn't know exactly how much until early next week.

"We're all concerned about that," he said. "Each shift has taken at least four hours of overtime just for the last week. We'll know where we are budget-wise hopefully by Monday or Tuesday. All the snow has been gorgeous and it's great for Carnival, but on the other side it's costly."

Sweeney also thanked the town of Harrietstown and other highway departments that have assisted the village in snow removal.

Harrietstown

Harrietstown Highway Superintendent Craig Donaldson said his four-man crew has done "a pretty good job" keeping up with the snow. The town maintains more than 60 miles of both town and county roads.

"We've been out trying to keep the roads open and cutting banks," Donaldson said. "We've also been taking the loader around to keep hydrants and intersections open. We're busy, that's for sure. It's been a few years since we've seen one like this. It all seemed to come since mid-January. Somebody turned the valve on and it never shut off."

Donaldson said his crews have been accumulating "quite a bit of overtime," but the overall impact to his budget won't be known until later this year. The town's budget year begins in January.

"We aren't going to run out of overtime until we find out what next fall brings," he said.

Donaldson said he hasn't heard many complaints from people about the town's progress in snow removal.

"I've had gestures, and I won't tell you what they were," he said. "But for the most part, I think people understand what's going on. It's frustrating I know for a lot of people because their driveway gets filled every day. But that's a part of living here, and three months from now, we'll have forgotten about it."

Lake Placid

In Lake Placid, village Department of Public Works Superintendent Brad Hathaway said his crews are playing catch-up.

"We're going as fast as we can expect to go with the amount of snow that we've had," he said Wednesday. "Probably not as fast as everybody that lives here would like, but we're doing all we can. We're just asking people to be patient."

Hathaway said his department's priority has been to keep village streets, especially downtown, clear and open during the snowstorms. When the clean-up work begins, he said crews focus first on the intersections along some of the village's most-traveled roads, like Saranac Avenue.

"We work on getting the snow back off the intersections so when people are pulling out they can see in both directions," Hathaway said. "Then we work on widening the roads. We take care of the roads that are really narrow first and then we work our way from there."

The village has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to snow removal, in part because the highway department's ranks are the lowest they have been in several years. Hathaway said the department had as many as 15 employees when he took over in 2006; now it has nine. Employees from the village water and sewer departments have been called out to help with snow removal from the recent storms.

"We're doing a lot more work with less guys right now," Hathaway said.

Hathaway also said his crews have been accumulating more overtime because of the big snowstorms, but he doesn't think he's broken his budget yet.

"If I have to continue at the pace we are going with overtime, that might be an issue," he said. "But right now we're doing all right. It might be a little over what we thought it would be, but we're hoping for an early spring."

While the storms have increased labor costs, Hathaway said the consistent cold temperatures have actually saved the highway department money because it hasn't had to use as much sand and salt.

DOT

Michael Flick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation region that includes Franklin County, said there have been some staffing reductions due to retirements in the local DOT forces.

"We had to do some jockeying around with routes in Franklin County due to staffing availability," Flick said. "It wasn't anything significant."

The DOT has 20 snow plowing routes in Franklin County, as opposed to 23 in Clinton and 28 in St. Lawrence counties, which are both bigger.

"We try to focus on miles of highway, then staff appropriately," he said.

But any staffing reductions haven't been much of a problem so far, Flick said.

"I think we have things well in hand," Flick said. "We have many years with practice with snow and ice. That doesn't mean it's not hard work sometimes."

Flick said he often gets questions about whether DOT overtime and materials are being depleted more or less than in other years, and he said the answer is that historically they run just around the same numbers every year.

This year, for instance, the last few weeks have seen several large dumpings of snow, but the winter was relatively light before that. Other years there may be a snowy December but an early spring, or even snowfall all throughout the winter.

"Typically, it balances out," Flick said. "It usually hits pretty close to that norm every year."

Private plow drivers

It's not just municipal and state highway workers who have been busy moving snow. Private plow drivers have also had their hands full over the past month.

"We've been out straight," said Bill Patterson, a local plow driver. "We've been on roofs everyday and plowing everyday. I'm about ready to take a little break. But it's that time of year and you take what you can get."

"It's been a bear this winter," said Don Hamm of Whiteface Construction, who's been plowing snow for 40 years. "I enjoy it. Plus, it keeps the company alive in the winter. It pays the bills."

Mike Boon, who's also a local contractor, said he and his crew of six have been working day and night to clear snow for businesses and residents in the Saranac Lake area.

"You get it plowed and cleaned up, then it snows again," he said. "This is the most snow I've seen in the last 12 or 13 years. We did more plowing last month than we did all last year."

Boon said all the snow removal work has provided a good boost of income for his company. It's also good for the local ski areas, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival and the area's economy, he said.

"I think it's a good thing," he said. "I love the snow. If we're going to have winter, let's have snow, not just cold. Let it come."

 
 

 

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