Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

City Struggles to Keep Up Snow Plowing

Problems include aging equipment, staff shortages and inexperienced operators.

By - Feb 14th, 2019 02:57 pm
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City of Milwaukee truck trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

City of Milwaukee truck trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

The city has been inundated with over 45 inches of snow this winter, much of it in the past few weeks. And with that hundreds of City of Milwaukee plow operators have spent many 12-plus hour shifts on city streets pushing snow, salting streets and clearing sidewalks.

But how well have they done? “We have had better snow plowing,” said Alderman Michael Murphy at a council debriefing. “Our operations almost always look horrible before they look good,” said Department of Public Works director of operations Laura Daniels.

Daniels told the city’s Public Works Committee that three issues have hampered DPW’s success. She said a combination of aging equipment, a staffing shortage and plow operator inexperience have hampered the city’s snow removal operations.

“We have a lot of new people. Some of these people, it’s a learning curve for them,” said Daniels. She said one third of the city’s plow operators have under two years of experience and two thirds have been with the city for less than five years.

“Where I think we can do better is some of the curb-to-curb. Some of the new drivers are afraid to tug up against the curb. It’s scary. They don’t want to ruin the plow and the curb,” said Daniels. “We need to do better on that and corners. We need to dip in and out and around, so we are not leaving triangles.”

The city relies on “salters” for arterial streets and “packers” for side streets. The salters are lighter trucks designed to spread salt and plow, while the packers are heavy garbage trucks with plows attached. The age of the equipment is becoming an issue, said Daniels.

“We’re working with an old and aging fleet,” Daniels told the committee. She said the desired average age for packers would be seven years, while it currently stands at 9.5. Daniels said during this week’s snow operation that out of the 111 packers in use, 58 reported issues ranging from failing to start to having a broken windshield wiper. Committee chair Robert Bauman pushed for empirical data on reliability, telling Daniels the council couldn’t consider funding solutions unless it had data on vehicle availability.

Daniels also briefly touched on staffing issues within the Department of Public Works. “It’s difficult to hire and retain,” said Daniels. She cited stagnant city wages as an issue. Plow operators, who work 12-to-16 hour shifts during snow operations, are city employees who drop their normal city duties, often sanitation, during plowing periods. Daniels said her department is short at least 45 operators.

Murphy is hopeful that experience, which employees have been getting plenty of lately, proves beneficial. “Hopefully this was a very valuable training experience,” said Murphy about the nine inches of snow that fell this week.

In an email to city officials, one retired plow operator, James Jones, offered a solution: hire retired plow operators part time. “Many sanitation retirees say hire them to drive and plow the street(s) part time for the city.” he wrote.  These former employees know how “to do a curb to curb cut.” He noted that employees have previously suggested this, but City Hall “had a deaf ear.” He suggested the city could put the word out in letters containing the retirees’ check stubs. Otherwise, he warned,  the city could face trouble “if a major storm hit back to back.”

Does The City Follow Its Own Laws?

Beyond the city streets, the city’s snow operation team has another major task: clearing 59 miles of city-owned sidewalks and 36,000 corners. Residents are required to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours after snowfall concludes, and Bauman contends the city isn’t following its own law. He said many city properties, including vacant lots and land taken in property-tax foreclosure, go unshoveled.

“As soon as we get off the street, we can get to sidewalks,” said Daniels. A mix of employees with shovels and small tractors are used to clear the snow.

Bauman answered the city faced a choice: either the employees “get off the streets earlier” so they can “do our sidewalks so we comply with our own ordinance or we amend the law,” said Bauman. “We cannot hold private property owners to a harsher standard than we hold ourselves to.”

“I accept no answer that says we cannot do our own sidewalks consistent with our own ordinance. That has to be changed,” said Bauman.

“That’s not the words I use,” responded Daniels.

Ald. Nik Kovac suggested the city explore hiring temporary workers just to shovel. “I wouldn’t want you to pull people off the street because we get as many complaints about streets as sidewalks,” said Kovac. He said new shovelers wouldn’t have problems that plow operators because it requires less training.

Murphy noted that it might not be that easy with the state’s historically low unemployment rate. But Milwaukee still reports an unemployment rate above the state average and an unemployment rate for African American males far above that.

“Tell us what you need to comply with our ordinance,” said Bauman. Daniels promised to do so.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

4 thoughts on “City Hall: City Struggles to Keep Up Snow Plowing”

  1. kmurphy724 says:

    Good story covering the city’s response to the heavy snows we’ve had. Wasn’t aware of the challenges faced in personnel and finances. Contributing to the problem (in addition to the immense amount of snow!) is some people not following parking restrictions. Tickets are one response, but that’s too late – I heard very few calls in the media appealing for people to park appropriately or that alternative parking options (were public school lots open?) were available. But it has been a hard winter, so a degree of resignation is not surprising.

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Kmurphy724 – There was a discussion about the impact of parking, including illegally. Approximately 2,800 tickets were issued during the last storm, indicating a lot of areas couldn’t be properly plowed.

  3. Areader says:

    Over the decades the City often hired temporary shovellers to clear walks and corners. Recent less severe winters have left us looking like we’ve forgotten how to cope and how to budget for storms. Reductions in winter parking restrictions has (Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. for one example) have left us with narrower arterials and no place to put the snow.

  4. oconsase@gmail.com says:

    Interesting comment on the lack of experience on the part of the drivers. I have noticed a real drop off in effective snow plowing in Sherman Park. There are plow drivers in our neighborhood who make a mess of our streets–sometimes I wonder about their training. Cars are literally plowed in by drivers who push snow right up to the car and around the cars when the drivers do not cut in and out while plowing. And then tickets show up on cars that would take hours to get shoveled out. We had a driver who was trying to turn around on our street and then pushed a huge bank of snow onto our sidewalk as he/she tried to get out of the mess. Some of our side streets are not being plowed well; they are almost impassable even after the inexperienced plow driver goes through. In years gone by, I used to see snow plow drivers practicing in the stadium parking lots…..this hands-on experience pays off when the mighty snows come.

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