Slippery slope: What will more budget cuts mean for snow, ice removal?


A lack of state funding is trickling down to the Twin Cities streets, meaning that it could take longer to remove snow and ice build-up this winter. Recent cuts to staff and hours in Minneapolis, teamed with increases in salt prices, affect snow removal. City officials say they are forming plans to work around the inevitable budget crisis and its fallout.

Mike Kennedy, who heads snow removal operations at Minneapolis Public Works, said that while there have been reductions to staff and funding for snow and ice removal in recent years, that largely hasn’t affected the level of city services.

However, he said he’s waiting until January 27, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to announce state budget cuts in 2009-10.

“At this time, it’s just too early to make any predictions, or state anything on how that is going to impact one little piece of snow and ice control,” Kennedy said.

But a cloudy economic forecast is nothing new for Minneapolis. Since 2003 cuts in state aid, the city has seen its snow removal budget reduced to about $8 million annually. Kennedy said each year the cost of salt increases, and it now costs Minneapolis roughly $1 million annually.

“Snow and ice control is always a balancing act between public safety, the budget and the environment,” Kennedy said. “People see snow [on streets] and think that we must have had some big budget deal. No. Have we been using less salt for budgetary reasons? Do we keep an eye on how salt affects the environment? Yes. Has it made some glaring difference? No.”

But as recently as 2007, Kennedy said he had to eliminate 15 jobs, which have yet to be replaced.

To fill staffing and monetary gaps, Kennedy recruited commercially licensed Public Works mechanics and maintenance workers to drive plows in the winter, and made the decision in 2007 to chop weekend and evening hours. Today, staff are called in to work during major winter storms, which have been plentiful this season. When final numbers are tallied, December’s snowfall will likely go down as one of the heaviest on record.

“We’re holding our own,” Kennedy said. “It [was] a tough December with back to back 1- to- 2-inch storms.”

Kennedy said crews are remaining diligent, and “being as efficient as we can be considering the circumstances.”

But that’s not good enough for Uptown resident Barb Lickness.

“I am pretty sure my street has not even been plowed,” said Lickness, who lives at 27th & Grand in Uptown. “There is a big rut running down the middle of the street that is all iced up.”

However, she said that the build-up might not be a plow problem, so much as an enforcement one.

By city ordinance, Minneapolis plows must clear snow from curb-to-curb before residents can park along snow emergency routes. Lickness said that because there are many renters on her street who don’t fully grasp the city’s oftentimes tricky on-street parking rules, vehicles aren’t moved, and plows can’t fully do their job.

“Many of the renters don’t pay attention to the plowing schedules,” Lickness said.
Lickness wishes the city would ticket and tow more on her block.

“They do in some areas of the city but evidently we are chopped liver on my block,” she said.

Others on the Minneapolis issues list have reported a relative lack of snow and ice removal along the Nokomis and connector trails. But Kennedy maintains that the only real dip in snow and ice removal this year has been that crews have been slow to clear snow and ice around bus shelters.

Minneapolis has not updated its snow removal policy since 2001, when odd-even parking restrictions were made permanent, Kennedy said. St. Paul hasn’t changed its since 1992, when it switched from “one day, two night” snow removal, to having city crews clear streets within 20 hours of a snowfall of three or more inches, said street maintenance engineer Gary Erickson.