Harsh winter costs Royal Oak $109K in overtime

Salt, overtime wages costing local cities

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Overtime wages and road salt have helped run up the cost of a frigid winter season in Royal Oak. City Manager Don Johnson said storms have cost the city $637,024 already this winter.

"We've used almost $400,000 worth of salt alone and it's been too cold to use salt much of this winter," Johnson said.

The Department of Public Service employees have earned $109,000 of overtime pay plowing and spreading salt.

"When we declare a snow emergency, the department is split into two crews who go on 12-hour shifts and they work continuously until the entire city has been plowed," Johnson said. "That can take 36 to 48 hours."

The city has used more than 7,000 tons of salt already this winter, more than double the amount used all of last year.

"During the course of a normal year, we use between 5,500 and 6,000 tons of salt," said Greg Rassel, director of the Department of Public Service. "It would have been more but salt isn't effective below 22 degrees so there have been many days when we didn't spread salt."

Last year the city used only about 3,000 tons of salt.

While salt has been in short supply at hardware stores and home centers recently, the city is in no danger of running out.

In January the Detroit area broke its all-time snowfall record for the month with 29.6 inches, topping the old record -- 29.6 inches set in 1978 -- by more than 9 inches. And with the mercury hovering well below freezing for much of 2014, the snow has stuck around.

"Nothing is going away. We've had minimal melt-off," said Johnson. "We just keep piling snow on top of what is already there. We had to switch our trucks over to the large front mounted blades because the underbody blades couldn't throw snow over the existing piles."

More than 94 percent of this winter's local street maintenance budget has been spent already and February just ended.

"There is no 'snow reserve account,'" Johnson said. "This will reduce (an) already low fund balance in these funds and may result in cutbacks in other parts of street maintenance. We anticipate this winter will result in many cracks and potholes that will need to be repaired as well. We are already seeing that but it will be worse in the spring."

Road maintenance is paid for entirely from a share of fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees the city receives from the state. Royal Oak does not use any local property taxes for roads.

The expensive winter has taken its toll on the city's water mains as well. There have been 55 water main breaks since the beginning of the year.

"Our first priority is maintaining water service and clearing the major roads," Johnson said. "Residential streets are usually only plowed when there is at least 4 inches of snow and we can call a snow emergency. Without a snow emergency we can't get parked cars off the streets, and parked cars make plowing difficult and ineffective. It's been a very challenging year but the DPS crews have done a great job."

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