Who Will (Finally) Clear The Snow?
"Why did you stop sending out front-end loaders to finish the job?" irate alderman asks.
The Public Works Committee could be renamed the Snow Plow Committee based on its recent meetings.
“The fact that you extended these parking restrictions with no other plan than warm weather is totally unacceptable,” said Bauman of the department’s announcement that parking restrictions have been extended to March 15th. “You’re literally saying we will wait for mother nature to solve the problem.”
“I’m sorry. I do not accept the premise that this is an overwhelming assault of nature,” Bauman declared.
DPW commissioner Jeff Polenske responded that the amount of snow was within the season’s average, but “to get the amount of snow we’ve received in the four weeks we’ve received it, it was a lot snow.” He added that freezing rain and prolonged cold spells have made removal more difficult.
It’s a legal and financial matter, said DPW director of operations Laura Daniels. “The reason we stopped clearing with end loaders is that end loaders are a contracted service. We hire them to do cul de sacs, dead ends, crossovers and bus stops,” said Daniels. “We do the cleanup after with salt trucks as much as we can.” Daniels said much of the snow force is working on a four-week backlog of garbage and recycling pickup, clocking 10-hour shifts to catch up.
Polenske and Daniels said they would come up with a plan to address the remaining snow, which could include modifying contracts with contractors. “We are certainly open to looking for improvements,” said Polenske.
“I’m not looking for taking things into consideration. Act, act, you’re in charge,” said Bauman. “You’re the general. Issue some orders. Command your troops,” he demanded, while waving his fist with a martial flair.
“Understood,” responded Polenske.
Ald. Mark Borkowski also has issues with the plowing operation. “I don’t need perfection on the arterials, because if I’m stuck in my neighborhood and I can’t get out of my doggone driveway, then I can’t get to an arterial, so what good is it to me?” asked Borkowski.
Daniels defended the city’s plowing of side streets. “This winter was the first time we got to every side street within 12 to 14 hours,” she told the committee. She said the service goal is 18 hours.
“We all know you’re working very hard, we have a great team out there, but we have to be better,” said Borkowski. “How can we build a better mousetrap? For goodness sake.”
It’s not just drivers that Bauman is concerned about. “It is totally, unequivocally unacceptable how we deal with pedestrians,” he complained. He singled out the “disgraceful” conditions that were shown in a WUWM feature on attorney and wheelchair user William Crowley that depict numerous impassable crosswalks for all those but the most able-bodied.
The alderman asked the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator Rebecca Rabatin if the city was complying with federal law when it came to failing to clear so many crosswalks. Rabatain didn’t issue an official determination, but said the law stipulates “equal access for all.”
“Get the pedestrians through at the same time we get the cars through. If it costs us $10 million more, then we will make that choice,” responded Bauman.
Much of the city’s snow and ice removal operation is funded by an annual snow and ice fee added to Milwaukee Water Works bills.
The city budget for 2019 estimates it will collect $9.56 million from the fee. Bauman said a small increase of the fee could yield big improvements. The city spends approximately $190 per hour on private front-end loader contractors.
Ald. Michael Murphy took a long-term view, asking about employee retention. “We are going over all the data,” said Daniels about why people are leaving. “Anecdotally, I’ll tell you [Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)] drivers are in big demand,” said Daniels. “We are looking at why people leave. It is usually those earlier employees less than five years, up to eight years, that get a better offer elsewhere.”
“When you have sanitation employees that have shots fired into their cabin, that plays a role,” said Murphy. Polenske said the department doesn’t have confirmation yet if the garbage truck crew that had a bullet enter its truck cabin was targeted or if it was a random act.
Polenske said the department is modifying its on-street crew practices in response to a recent incident where a city employee was struck and killed in a hit-and-run incident. The driver was later arrested.