Back in July, the Billings City Council agreed to try something new: plowing snow off all residential streets.
As part of its 2018 budget agreement, the council unanimously approved $420,000 to hire private crews to plow snow off residential streets and $90,000 to purchase gates for plows so as not to block residents’ driveways.
The council’s decision has proven fortuitous; this winter already has been the snowiest in decades – and there’s still more than a month to go before the calendar says spring.
The season’s snowfall measured nearly 74 inches by last Thursday. Billings Public Works Department crews have been working 12-hour days to keep city streets passable. These public servants have been stretched to the max with 84-hour work weeks for the past seven weeks, according to Public Works Director Dave Mumford.
Street maintenance supervisors actually have been putting in 14-hour days because they have to arrive early and stay late. These street workers have made it possible for the rest of us to get to work, to school, to stores and doctors. If not for round-the-clock snow plowing and hauling, many Billings folks would be stuck at home or delayed in their efforts to travel across the city.
Many Billings residents also have expressed gratitude for the private contractor, CMG, which the city hired to plow residential streets. The new residential plowing launch wasn’t perfect. But overall, the feedback from residents is positive; people want their streets cleared of snow. The service has improved with each successive plowing. CMG was doing its third round of residential plowing last week.
By hiring the private contractor for residential plowing, the city avoided the expense of buying more plows and hiring more workers. The plowing contract also puts local construction workers back on a job during the season they otherwise would be laid off. The city also contracts with Knife River to haul some of the snow plowed by city crews.
Now the city has almost used up all but $75,000 of the funds assessed from property owners and allocated for residential plowing. (The assessment totaled $8 for the year for most homeowners.)
Mumford told The Gazette last week that up to $20,000 from the street reserve fund will be needed to finish the latest round of plowing. City Administrator Bruce McCandless is allowed to approve expenditures of up to $42,000 or 10 percent of the plowing contract. Beyond that, the city council would have to authorize spending, so the city council must act to cover the contingency of another big snowfall.
There’s no question that the city must plow its major streets, the arterials that keep people and goods flowing around Billings. Now that citizens have seen that residential plowing reduces travel delays, vehicle damage and safety hazards, there’s no going back to the old stuck-in-the-snow model.
At its next business meeting, on Feb. 26, the city council should authorize the money needed to continue residential plowing on the same basis it started with the Christmas snowstorm.
In the case of plowing public streets, our elected representatives must recognize by now that it’s not a discretionary service. People expect a city of 110,000 to plow its streets. We expect the city council to ensure that this good, new plowing program continues until the big snow storms stop.