City Struggles to Keep Up Snow Plowing
Problems include aging equipment, staff shortages and inexperienced operators.
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.
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.
“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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