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No Business Like Snow Business for Springfield amid Staffing Shortfalls…

Chris Cignoli

Brother, can you spare a snow plow driver? (still via Focus Springfield)

Springfield City Councilors grilled public works czar Chris Cignoli about poor plowing after this month’s snowstorms. While city lawmakers and residents raised complaints about inadequate snow removal and dangerous conditions, the options for to make improvements next time were less than apparent. Perhaps adding to frustration, complaints after average storms are not new.

The chairs of the Audit and Maintenance & Development committees, Jose Delgado and Malo Brown, held the meeting Monday evening. Several councilors, members of the public and Cignoli attended in person and virtually. Director of Internal Audit Yong No was also on hand. While the DPW director promised to do what he could, the principal restraint is insufficient staff.

“We are looking at a severe shortage of our own drivers. We are looking at a severe shortage of our plow contractors,” Cignoli said.

The result, he continued, is “Things are taking longer during snowstorms.”

During storms this month, the city was only able to hire 88 plows. In years and decades past, it corralled as many as 150. On top of that, the city’s truck driving corps is riddled with vacancies.

The most serious complaints appear to have concerned slipping. Councilors reported allegations that the city simply did not pow some streets, something Cignoli rejected.

“Just because we did not plow down to pavement does not mean we did not plow it,” he said.

Complaints about city plowing bubble up every few years. Generally, with a warming climate the odds of big storms every year have gone down. Yet, the dynamics of climate change can also supercharge storms, complicating the city’s response. The atmospherics of megastorms aside, most of Springfield’s snow removal issues are terrestrial in nature.

These have evolved over time, but city officials over the past decade have indicated staffing could be an issue. There had been hints before this month that contractors were becoming harder and harder to secure. That problem, Cignoli indicated Monday, has become acute.

Larded onto that is drivers leaving the city’s employ. Replacing them has been difficult he said. One culprit, he said, was residency. Another was low pay and the laboriousness of civil service, although the former could resolve with contract negotiations this year. Cignoli said he has spoken to Mayor Domenic Sarno about allocating more funding to increase DPW wages.

These arguments prompted No, the internal audit director, to caution against any formal review of the DPW now. Rather, the department needed more resources.

“I recommend allowing Chris to properly staff his department and his contractors to address these issues,” No said at the meeting’s close.

The Control Board in 2007. Not the legacy of the city’s fiscal crisis this time? (WMP&I)

At first blush, today’s problems seemingly echo the legacy of the city’s fiscal crisis. The city does not have enough staff, that is money. The result—inadequate plowing—may be the same but the cause is more universal than Springfield’s one-time budgeting woes. Employers, both public and private Cignoli assured, are dealing with many of the pressure Springfield is facing.

With record low employment, workers are hard to find even with higher wages. Legal marijuana has upped the risk of termination when commercial drivers license holders face random drug tests. Construction companies that doubled as plow operators in winter cannot easily recall workers otherwise on unemployment during the off-season.

The blood-letting the Springfield Financial Control Board had to impose had been a cause at one time. In contrast to some departments, the Control Board uncovered little scandal in the DPW’s books The longtime department head, Al Chwalek, retired on his own terms years after the Control Board folded. Still, the citywide crunch pinched Tapley Street, the department’s headquarters.

In 2013 after that year’s epic February storm, then-director Chwalek faced a fusillade of complaints from councilors. Some noted then at the city appeared to be relying more on contractors and less on city drivers. Chwalek said then even if he had more drivers, it is not clear what they would do the rest of the year. In short, the city would need even more money to pay for projects they would do year-round.

On Monday, Cignoli was aware of the nature of complaints circulating on social media. (That attention prompted a brief clash with then-Councilor Adam Gomez). He cited what he called false rumors about timely payment to contractors and pre-treating streets. When he took the top job at DPW a decade ago, he said better communication was a goal. At a minimum, he is seeing the municipal innuendo out there.

In 2019, when snow removal was again panned, nonenforcement of parking bans was the whipping boy. A lack of city workers came up then, too. Again, officials questioned what to do with drivers on days without frozen participation. However, even then there were hints contractors were becoming scarcer.

Today the problem is not that the city has no money, at least not in the way it lacked it in previous years. There are open driver positions and contractors are not signing up to plow. The city is also competing with countless private property owners and other municipalities. Cignoli said all municipalities use contractors, save East and classic Longmeadows.

East Longmeadow

East Longmeadow’s pristine pavement near the Springfield line in 2019. (WMP&I)

“Every other community around here requires contractors and we are all fighting for the same contractors,” he said.

Many contractors also finding the hassle of plowing not worth the time. The value is a function of the serendipity of snowfall intensities. Equipment damage could cost more than plowing brings in. Other contractors may not regularly carry sufficient insurance, although the city tries to iron out such wrinkles.

Hiring drivers is a universal issue as well. Even before the pandemic and subsequent recovery, small towns were sounding the alarm about securing staff for key job. Now, even cities like Springfield cannot staff funded positions amid the tight labor market. Cignoli said even incentives like paying for applicants CDLs have had limited impact.

That was of little comfort to councilors who were fielding constituent complaints or experience roads themselves.

“I thought the roads were extremely dangerous,” at-large councilor Kateri Walsh said.

Solutions are not apparent, either. CIgnoli said that one place many workers go is the Springfield Water & Sewer Commission. While the SWSC serves the city and its elected leaders appoint commissioners, it is a distinct corporate entity. Thus, not only can it lure city workers away but even if it had the right equipment—it largely does not—it would be legally impractical to contract SWSC to plow.

Springfield City Hall Snow

A snowy City Hall in 2013. Similar problem, but changing circumstances. (WMP&I)

Despite the barrage of questions, councilors expressed a strong desire to work with Cignoli. Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez said all parties had to partner with him and the DPW to get more people to work for the department.

“I don’t know how we are going to address this, but it should be a top priority,” she said.

Councilors also raised the question of parking bans. Cignoli noted that the city does not have a total parking bans. Some peer cities like Hartford do, but there are tradeoffs in doing so. Already, enforcement can get political. Cignoli declined to name names, but he said he usually receives complaints from councilors about cars receiving tickets or a tow. He added that the Council had considered changing parking bans in 2019, but never reached a decision.

The debate touched on other questions like pre-treating, salt damage and the division of the city into zones. There was some energy, but the reception Cignoli received was less frosty than in prior years.

A cynic would argue that the excuses are familiar. That may have been truer in the years before the pandemic. Most of the issues Cignoli cited Monday reflect challenges bearing down on all communities, especially those in Western Massachusetts.

Delgado, the Audit chair, however, noted that residents’ concern is whether anybody is meeting those challenges, whatever they are.

“They want to see solutions and getting this done,” he said. “I want to make sure this body is working with you to try and figure out those solutions.”