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The Winter of Our Discontent…

City Hall Wednesday Night After the Storm (WMassP&I)

City Hall the Wednesday Night After the Storm (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—As warming temperatures and city crews were finally and fully conquering last weekend’s snow fall, City Councilors were taking Department of Public Works officials to task for a recovery called inadequate and “dangerous.”  DPW Chief Allan Chwalek faced withering criticism and probing questions even as he defended his and his department’s response.

The hearing was formally a joint Planned & Economic Development and Maintenance and Development committee hearing.  The committees’ respective chairs Bud Williams and Kateri Walsh were present.  Also on hand were Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen.  While snow removal was criticized in 2011, as well, no hearing of this scale was held then.

Dressed in a pinstripe suit, Chwalek began with a description of snow removal operations, which has its roots in August when planning and contracting begin.  The department secures contracts with the private entities that assist the city in snow removal.  However, those contracts do not guarantee a number of plows on the streets.

Al Chwalek (WMassP&I)

DPW Chief Al Chwalek (WMassP&I)

To plow the city’s 2000+ streets and keep the arterial roads clear, the city issues an “all hands on deck” call to any driver and piece of equipment available.  Those contractors, particularly the large firms, plow private entities first.  Complicating matters further, the city cannot always get sufficient contractors.  Many decline to work in the city fearing the liability of illegally parked cars and pedestrians in the street.  Chwalek noted money is a factor, but the ease of competing jobs, like plowing an empty interstate, is also key.

As for the response during the storm itself, Chwalek said that the storm began to reach its worst after 11pm on Friday night.  Ticketing and towing operations, handled by the police, had begun before that.  Though, as police officials would explain, operations had to be suspended when the snowfall peaked at 2-3 inches/hour in the early Saturday.

DPW inspectors were out throughout the storm and after to direct city crews to keep streets clear.  Chwalek said that only private contractors, who had allegedly be working for 30 hours straight, were sent home at noon on Saturday.  City crews continued to work through the afternoon.  Problematically, the number of private contractors, which heavily augment city plowing operations, only thinned out further day by day.

Like Mayor Domenic Sarno over the weekend, Chwalek also pointed to the historic nature of the storm.  Once the snow totals exceeded a foot, smaller pickup truck contractors were no longer helpful, leaving the city relying on a dwindling number of heavy equipment contractors and the city’s fleet of 20 heavy-duty trucks.

Finance Director and acting-CAFO T.J. Plante. He said he expects the city to recover some snow costs from FEMA (via masslive)

As Chwalek spoke, it became clear that two factors were at play: the size of the storm and the city’s finances.  Almost symbolically, Finance Director and acting-CAFO T.J. Plante stood at the back of the Chamber looming large over the snow removal conversation.

Still there were complaints.  Several residents offered their concerns.  Former City Councilor William Foley took pains to thank DPW for the job done, but said that recommendations for improvements should grow out this event.  Matthew Levy, a resident of Forest Park, noted the conundrum for apartment dwellers who could not park on the unplowed side of the street when the ban was in effect on the opposite side.  Others worried about the trouble high snow plows made at intersections.

Chwalek took note of residents’ concerns, but as he would say to Edwards when questioned about the DPW’s plowing strategy, there were reasons why often only one lane’s worth of snow were plowed on some streets.  Chwalek and his subordinates said snow storage space on the tree belt, came at a premium.  Fully plowing a street would either bury sidewalks or need to be hauled away as was done in Downtown.

Councilor Bud Williams (WMassP&I)

Councilor Bud Williams (WMassP&I)

Williams was the first councilor to ask questions.  In light of the city’s reliance on heavy equipment, Williams asked why the city did not own more heavy equipment.  Chwalek said some purchases may be needed, but were the city buy more of the heaviest snow removal machinery, it would “be idle during 99 out of 100” storms the city would face.  Such equipment might need to have a summer use to justify its acquisition.

Williams also questioned Chwalek about complaints that ordered tows did not happen.  Chwalek, along with Police Sergeant Robert Tardiff, who was assigned to the DPW during the storm, said that this was not the case.  Towing operations were suspended when the storm reached its peak early Saturday morning, however.  Some police cruisers were abandoned when they became caught in snow drifts.

Craig Morele, president of CJ’s Towing, said conditions were so bad that he and Tardiff, who rode together during the storm, had to drive along the rumble strip on I-291 just to follow the road.  Morele added that his tow trucks could not tow any car without a police order, which may explain some of the confusion to which Williams referred.

Williams’ questions ended when, in a fit of anger, he decried the quality of contractors‘ plowing.  Before Chwalek could reply, Williams passed the microphone to Walsh.

Councilor Kateri Walsh (WMassP&I)

Councilor Kateri Walsh (WMassP&I)

Walsh asked what kind of partnership the city has with surrounding communities and even places like Westover.  She said she had observed coordination between bases where son, a marine, was stationed and nearby communities.  Chwalek, demurred, saying he was an Air Force man.  Seriously, however, Chwalek said that most of Westover’s equipment is simply too large for city streets.  He did say that nearby communities do pitch in, but only after their own streets are cleared to satisfaction.

Edwards, however, was largely unmoved by Chwalek’s explanations.  Unloading on the department in nearly a single breath, he said conditions were particularly poor in his ward, which includes the South End and Six Corners while roads in parks were cleared.  He added that many of his constituents had trouble finding alternative parking.  Edwards also singled out television stations’ sensationalistic reporting on the city’s urban problems, as something that could be dissuading contractors from plowing in the city.

Councilor Melvin Edwards (WMassP&I)

Councilor Melvin Edwards (WMassP&I)

Chwalek reiterated the DPW’s position on plowing, but agreed with Edwards that perhaps school parking lots could be opened to residents.  He said that the Parking Authority already does this downtown. He could not speak for the Parks Department, but said more coordination among departments is needed.  Chwalek how Water & Sewer vehicles were not available since being spun off form DPW.

Councilor Fenton dug deeper into the details, particularly the financial ones.  He noted that the number of contractorsthe city needed to plow streets had gone up as the number of FT’s or funded full-time positions within the department fell.  Chwalek acknowledged this dynamic.  Fenton then asked if the department would benefit from greater funding, including for driver positions.

Chwalek agreed that the DPW could use more money, but he declined to name specifics until he could discuss it with the Finance Department.  He also noted that the mayor did restore nine driving positions in this year’s budget.  Like heavy-duty equipment, however, he worried about restoring full-time positions for drivers and not having any task for them to perform in non-winter months.

Councilor Michael Fenton (WMassP&I)

Councilor Michael Fenton (WMassP&I)

Chwalek did note that the DPW could do a better job with more manpower and equipment, but he also noted that Finance asked him for 10% savings across the board for FY2014.

Fenton then turned to Plante and asked what the city’s borrowing capacity was for potential purchases of heavy-duty equipment.  Plante said although the city would be retiring some debt soon, it could not safely allow its annual debt payments to rise much further.  Fenton wryly noted, however, that the city had the bonding capacity for a controversially expensive senior center.

In a follow up email, Plante clarified that the amount a community can sustain in annual debt payments varies, with particular attention to a community‘s revenue stream.  He added that a 7-10% range is the norm.  Springfield’s sweet spot, at the moment $40 million annually, a little over 7% of its approximately $550 million budget.

Although only a handful of citizens were present, frustration was apparently high.  Edwards tweeted later Wednesday evening that the meeting that the DPW’s explanations were familiar and unconvincing.  All of the councilors present (and probably those who could not attend) were bombarded with calls.  This was especially true after the city’s 311 office was forced to operate remotely because employees were stuck at home.

Some of Chwalek’s answers were candid and others were not.  He did not fully explain why the six-seven hour private plowing suspension happened, and, more importantly, what could done to prevent it again in the future.  Other nearby communities did not appear to have same difficulties, complicating matters further.  The city’s precarious finances feature prominently, however, and the coming budget could set the stage as much as residents’ outrage after last week’s storm.

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