AUBURN — City officials say they’re willing to consider “tweaks” to their snowplowing plan following complaints about the city’s response to early-season storms.
Public Works Deputy Director Denis D’Auteuil said Saturday at a City Council workshop that the department has limited resources and tries to salt and plow as many roads as possible during a storm. But, he acknowledged, the one-year-old plowing plan could be improved.
D’Auteuil said he would take the council’s feedback and “look and see if there are any immediate changes we can make for this year.”
Interim City Manager Don Gerrish said he called the workshop to educate the four new councilors — Tizz Crowley, Mary LaFontaine, Joshua Shea and Leroy Walker Sr. — about the budget process. Gerrish also wanted to get each councilor to discuss expectations of each other and city staff for the coming year.
Ward 5 Councilor Leroy Walker called for the discussion on the city’s snow removal plan after learning recently that road crews responded too late to a late-December ice storm.
The snow removal plan, which was adopted last winter, sets different levels of service for different streets in the city based on traffic and other factors. Under the plan, higher-priority streets, such as Main, Court and Washington, get plowed up to four times as often as rural streets.
Sidewalks are also assigned priorities, depending on whether they are on a route to school or near a shopping center, among other factors.
During the four-hour workshop, which only one resident attended and no one from the public spoke, Walker disagreed with how the city assigned plowing priorities to streets. He said main streets shouldn’t be plowed five times to every one time others are plowed.
“I can’t accept as an excuse that because you put (a certain street) as a Priority 4 … that it would take eight hours to plow,” Walker said.
D’Auteuil said his department has only 20 trucks to cover roughly 500 miles of city streets. As such, he said the department has to prioritize. On Jan. 20, for example, he said some city sidewalks weren’t plowed until several hours after the storm had passed because crews were busy tending to roadways.
“As much as we would like to tackle streets and sidewalks at the same time, we can’t, with our resources,” he said.
Ward 4 Councilor David Young asked that some “neighborhood shortcuts” be assigned higher priority by the city. Ward 2 Councilor Robert Hayes suggested the city consider hiring contractors to clear rural roads. Councilors also discussed ways to make routes more efficient and to eliminate redundancies, such as bridges to Lewiston, which are also covered by crews from that city.
Gerrish said he expected some of the ideas would resurface, but he cautioned that the plan seemed to be working.
“We heard things that we might want to discuss this year,” he said, adding, “I don’t think you’ll see a major overhaul” of the plowing plan.
Gerrish also led a discussion on “Budget 101” for the board’s four new councilors, including a quick primer on a timeline for next year’s budget. City staff are already working on it, but it won’t be released until mid-March.
Gerrish noted that the city’s two highest expenditures in this year’s $31 million budget were employee salaries and benefits and debt service, at about $4.2 million and $7 million, respectively.
To date, he said this year’s budget “is in pretty good shape,” despite a miscalculation that led to a $165,000 cost overrun for the city’s retirement contribution for non-pension employees. That error will be offset by $200,000 in savings for the remainder of the fiscal year because health insurance rates increased less than expected.
After recent turmoil, councilors said they hoped the board would work together this year, respect one another and communicate face to face whenever possible. They asked the same from city staff.
“I hope that we will not think how we can be the squeaky wheel, but how we can work together as a body,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said.
The City Council will meet with the School Committee at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Auburn Hall for a joint workshop on school and city budgets. Officials could also bring up the possibility of a policy on storm-related delays at city schools.