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City looks at privatization to avoid repeat of snow removal woes

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, May 8, 2014, at 9:39 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 11:24 a.m.

Intent on avoiding a repeat of last winter’s snow removal controversy, city officials are weighing the privatization of part of their emergency winter roads operation.

But with private plowers largely committed, it’s uncertain whether such a deal can be worked out.

City Manager Robert Layton said this week that he is considering adding private snow removal firms to the city’s arsenal for big snowstorms as he prepares the 2015 budget.

The city also is considering whether its “baseline” snow removal budget – set at about $540,000 as a historical average – is enough in the wake of two bad winters that have strained city resources.

City officials took a public relations beating when a fast-moving Feb. 4 storm dumped 9 inches of snow on the area, too fast for the city’s 50 snowplows to remove before drivers pounded it into ice and the mercury dipped into the single digits. It left about three inches of ice on city streets for five days. The city had to dump huge amounts of sand on slick streets to help drivers cope, and some of it remains months later.

The city does not plan to buy more snowplows or hire more street crews, Layton said. The equipment would sit idle 11 months of the year.

“We can’t be ready for the worst that might come every year,” Layton said. “But we can have private firms at the ready when it happens.”

Key Construction president Dave Wells called the suggestion a fantastic idea and said some of the city’s paving and dirt contractors should be available to help the city.

“I think that any time you can bring work to business, it’s a good thing,” Wells said.

Private plowers already have snow removal deals worked out, though, said Joe Pajor, the city’s deputy director of public works. And most don’t have the blades to plow 11-foot driving lanes.

So city officials plan to sit down with local builders and see if they can make it affordable for contractors to buy blades. The city may have to pay contractors a retainer to make the plan financially viable, Pajor said.

“We want to test the market to see what’s available, what does make sense,” Pajor said. “If contractors do invest in equipment, how will they make sure it’s a sound business model if we’re saying we’re only going to use you if it’s bad?”

Pajor knows what such a plan would look like.

“In an ideal world, we’d have a vendor to call upon to duplicate the very work we do, increasing our capacity and reducing the time it takes to get across the snow emergency routes across town,” he said.

“The problem is, trucks and loaders are far more common in town than plows and salt-sand spreaders.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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