To survive in this line of work we’ve learned to take comparison questions in stride. They’re good questions and they’re questions we ask ourselves as we benchmark our plow operations against our peer cities too.
Kent’s a great community to serve and early in the winter season we appreciate the supportive comments we receive about the snow plow operations but as the weeks of back-to-back snow storms pile up, the mood definitely starts to change.
By February residents’ appetite for snow has long since been exhausted and the frustration of living in the snow belt is running high. If they have to clear the end of their driveway one more time after the plow truck goes by… (I get it.)
Winter is a long season and by this time of year the City’s equipment and employees are also wearing down from working around the clock and they’re dealing with the reality of having only so many places to push the snow to get it out of the street.
That’s the point where it starts to feel like you’re spinning your wheels without making much progress despite a lot of hard work.
The most common mid-season remark I get is why does it take Kent longer to get the streets back to bare pavement than Stow or Cuyahoga Falls?
It turns out that the answer to that is a combination of differences in resources available and snow operations tactics.
The top priority of Kent’s snow operations is public safety and the measure of our success is preventing accidents which is not necessarily the same as getting to bare pavement as fast or faster than Stow or Cuyahoga Falls.
If we were told that spending was not an obstacle I’m pretty sure that we could double our budget and beat our peer cities to have the barest pavement around but we have not found that to be the most responsible use of taxpayer dollars as bare pavement doesn’t necessarily mean better safety — and in some instances bare pavement can actually lead to more problems with icing and a false sense of security that leads to less driver precaution which ultimately may be the most important element of public safety.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t strive to get to bare pavement as well but we’ve learned to pace our efforts recognizing that throwing salt down at high rates may indeed get to bare pavement faster but the safety improvement from bare pavement is marginal at best when compared to the high cost of salt.
Out of necessity and tactically we go for an incremental approach to snow plowing — in the first 24 hours of a storm we make sure that plows have provided bare pavement first in the wheel paths and then the travel lanes. Then in the next 24-48 hours we continue to work the streets to get more bare pavement from curb to curb on our major streets while we make sure the neighborhood streets have safe travel lanes, often on hard pack snow rather than bare pavement.
It’s not that we don’t use salt, we do, we just use it more judiciously and spread it at rates that we think will achieve the same safety benefits at half the cost of some of our peers. I drove through Kent, Stow and Cuyahoga Falls during the peak of the storm event last weekend and there was more pavement showing in Stow and the Falls but I felt no less control of my vehicle and I observed drivers using more caution in Kent which is arguably the single most important predictor of public safety.
In Stow and the Falls I had to navigate through slush, constantly using my wipers and window cleaning fluid while in Kent I did not have those distractions. Its fair to say that it was a different driving experience between the 3 cities but there’s no accident data to suggest that one is inherently safer than the other.
One might look better than the other, and no doubt Kent draws criticisms from that perspective — but we haven’t found data to indicate that our streets perform any less safely. Plus, the kinds of quantities of salt that some communities dump on the streets can stress the fish and aquatic life of the streams and rivers that all this salt drains into come springtime. We try to think about those environmental consequences too.
Resources certainly play a factor in our snow operations. While we’ve seen improvements in our finances thanks to Council’s investment in downtown, we’re still at the same staffing levels and effective operating budgets (adjusted for inflation) that we had 10 years ago when we froze positions, cut department budgets, and eliminated vacant positions in order to make ends meet.
Our message to Council and the community hasn’t changed; we’re not going to use cuts in funding and personnel reductions as an excuse to stop delivering the best services we can but we ask that everyone at least understand that the days of throwing money at our problems are gone.
Every level of our services have been trimmed, modified and scaled back in order to spread the same resources (personnel and funding for trucks and salt for example) to cover two to three times more streets.
In our days with the Blue Ribbon Panel study (2007) we polled City Council and we surveyed residents asking them to give us direction as to what services they were willing to allow us to cut in order to keep our core services (like snow plowing) funded at a level necessary to meet the increased service demands.
The response was clear — no one wanted to see anything eliminated, and we’ve lived up to that but we’ve also tried to be as candid and transparent as possible explaining that we won’t cut anything but realistically there will be a slippage in the level of service when we face more work with less resources.
I’m extremely proud by how every department rose to the challenge of doing more with less and because of their resourcefulness the slippage in City services is almost unnoticeable to the general public. That doesn’t make the resource shortfalls any less real, it just means this community is blessed with a workforce that is good at its job and is willing to give its all to keep pace despite the financial odds.
Kent’s Public Service Director recently made some internal staffing changes that Council approved that we hope will add more driver’s to the pool of snow plow operators but we’re still limited by the number of plow trucks we have and the high cost of salt which tripled in price from 2013 to 2014.
I am not anticipating any dramatic changes in the streets from the staff changes but I offer it as an example of our commitment to find ways to do our job better and come up with resources on our own rather than asking the taxpayers for more money.
We’re also in constant contact with our neighboring cities all winter long and if anyone finds a new way to make our work more effective we jump on it.
Kent was one of the first cities to experiment with calcium chloride and later brine as a pre-treatment to prevent icy conditions and this year our crews are experimenting with a new product that works in temperatures where salt is no longer effective.
We’re proud of our track record for being out in front on the use of new technology and products that will help us do our job better.