Last week’s winter storm was unusual for its timing and low follow-up temperatures. But the city’s response raised the legitimate question of whether City Hall’s job-cutting and outsourcing have gone so far that citizens can no longer expect timely snow removal from even the most-used arterials.
Wichitans are accustomed to being on their own when it comes to neighborhood streets. But they’ve been able to trust that major thoroughfares will be plowed and treated as soon as possible.
That made last week’s persistence of treacherously icy, snowpacked conditions along main surface streets something new, perplexing and frustrating. It was more than that for the businesses that couldn’t be safely accessed by customers, and for vulnerable citizens such as the nearly 900 homebound senior citizens whose Meals on Wheels delivery was suspended for two days.
Granted, the nine-inch snowfall obviously didn’t fit the pattern of most storms, because the single-digit days that followed didn’t facilitate thawing. And crews did a great job with the four-inch snowfall Monday, when the usual application of salt-sand mix did the trick.
But it’s fair to wonder whether 50 plow trucks staffed by 100 people working split shifts are sufficient for a city of 164 square miles and 1,500 miles of emergency route streets, and whether some of the 45 city jobs being held open as part of budget cuts should be filled with more public works employees.
While Mayor Carl Brewer defensively leaped to the conclusion that Wichita would have to buy at least 70 more snowplow trucks to avoid a repeat, maybe investments far short of that are in order.
City staff is smart to be reviewing budget options and levels of service and considering other changes, including to its private contracting for snow removal and its salt sources. And perhaps, as suggested to the City Council by Alan King, director of public works and utilities, the city could have been better in telling the public what it was doing last week to try to respond to the storm.
But any commuters who also drove last week on clear suburban streets and state-managed area highways had good reason to doubt city officials’ serial excuses for why Wichita’s streets were still a frozen mess.
City officials should not be dismissive of citizens’ concerns about what is one of the most basic of public services, and should be encouraged to look for ways to improve in time for the next blizzard or ice storm.
And when the city prepares its next budget – a process usually all but ignored by the public – citizens should weigh in on whether they’d be willing to pay more for better snow removal than they saw last week, even if it meant the end of the city’s proud 20-year run of keeping the property-tax mill levy flat.