With the twin tensions of restricted funding and a demand for more service, the city of Fairbanks now also has to deal with an even deeper issue: How will they staff the snowplows?
Recent changes to Fort Wainwright’s snow removal standards are leaving the city scrambling to compete and its staff praying for fair weather.
City of Fairbanks Chief of Staff Mike Meeks gave a short presentation at the Oct. 28 Fairbanks City Council meeting, painting a grim picture of the city’s snow removal woes. In short, he claimed Fort Wainwright’s contractor pays a larger staff more to plow a smaller area where less snow needs to be hauled away. As a result, the city cannot staff a day shift to clear snow.
It’s a matter of math. The city pays temporary employees $29.69 per hour. According to Meeks’ presentation, Fort Wainwright’s contractor, Bering Straits Technical Services, pays $35 an hour. This number was confirmed in a message from Fort Wainwright’s public information officer, Eve Baker.
Additionally, Meeks said, Bering Straits employs 95 people for snow services on the Army post. However, there is some disagreement about this number. There are 95 Bering Straits employees at Fort Wainwright, but only 20 to 25 perform snow removal, according to Baker.
A statement from Bering Straits confirms that they have employees on Fort Wainwright performing snow removal, but it did not specify a number. The same statement asserted that Bering Straits employees on Fort Wainwright also include “electricians, plumbers, grounds laborers and heavy equipment operators.”
A statement from Baker on behalf of the Fort Wainwright Department of Public Works said that Bering Straits determines the amount of staff and equipment needed to meet the base’s snow removal needs. The statement confirmed that the snow removal plan was recently changed such that once 2 inches of snow accumulates, snow must be removed from all paved roads on the base within 24 hours of the end of the snowfall. Snow removal on dirt roads must be completed within 72 hours.
As a result of this change, Meeks said, the city is struggling to fill open temporary positions. The city’s winter staff consists of 10 permanent employees and 20 temporary workers. As of Oct. 30, the city only had six permanent employees on staff for snow removal, three of whom were on medical leave. Additionally, the city has one supervisor and a single temporary worker.
“I see no way we can compete with Fort Wainwright,” Meeks told the council. “Many people have secured a job for the wintertime. The only thing we’ve got going for us is something we can’t control, and that’s hope that the weather doesn’t go bad. And hope is a horrible course of action.”
As of the morning of Oct. 28, Meeks said, Operating Engineers Local 302 could only supply five more temporary workers.
“We cannot man a day shift right now, much less a night shift,” Meeks said.
The union provides the workers to the city each year, but if they are unable to supply enough temporary workers, the city has an option to hire from other sources. However, Meeks pointed out that the number of available employees could vary widely depending on a number of factors, including whether qualified operators recently quit from a position or were let go.
Not just anyone can drive the plows. The city’s snow removal equipment includes graders, snowplows, blowers, loaders and dump trucks. The city needs experienced operators with commercial driver’s licenses.
Mayor Jim Matherly released his proposed budget to the City Council at the Oct. 14 meeting. In it, he allocates $1,157,730 to temporary employees. None was removed from the amount recommended by Public Works. So far this year, Fairbanks has spent $428,592 on temporary employees. This is not limited to snow removal hires, according to a statement from city Communications Director Teal Soden, but the majority of that money has gone to snow removal.
Snow can’t simply be plowed off city streets. There’s nowhere for it to go. So when city crews clear a main thoroughfare like Cushman Street, the snow has to be hauled away to a dump site, slowing progress. This is true, according to Meeks, on 98% of the city’s streets.
The city has 355 lane miles of streets. Each employee is responsible for clearing nearly 12 miles. City workers have 72 hours to clear main roads before moving on to residential streets.
Fort Wainwright, according to Meeks’ presentation, has only about 86 lane miles, and only 30% of these require snow to be hauled away. One main artery on base, Gaffney Road, has 25 feet of space on either side where snow can be moved without needing to be hauled away.
But the bigger issue, according to city officials, is staffing the plows.
“They’ve gobbled up everybody. No one’s going to come here for $6 less an hour to have them work a few days at a time after a snowfall,” Matherly said. “It’s just not going to happen. This is kind of unprecedented for us.”
Contact staff writer Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or find her on Twitter: @FDNMcity.