By consensus, the Billings City Council gave public works officials a verbal go-ahead Monday to implement a plan to use contract labor to plow residential streets beginning next winter.
At issue is how often the 360 miles of local roads — those that aren’t arterials or collectors, priority and high-traffic routes that are cleared by street maintenance crews — will be plowed.
Public Works Director Dave Mumford estimated the annual cost at $460,000, plus a one-time additional cost of $90,000 to purchase gates that can be lowered quickly from snow graders to keep snow away from driveways.
Those costs could be paid in two ways: by assessing residential property owners either $7.88 or $10.71 annually, depending on which of two plans the council selects; or by increasing the department’s street maintenance budget. That second option could require cuts in other budgets. The council will begin hearings for the 2017-2018 budget on May 1.
Residential plowing funds not used up during one year could be rolled over into the next year’s budget, thereby reducing the next year’s residential assessment, if the council chooses that route.
The proposal includes residential plowing every time three inches of snow falls, up to five times per year. But council members said they believe contract plowing costs can be reduced if crews plow less often — say, at the six-inch mark.
Last year during its budget deliberations for the current budget, the council turned down a $425,000 option to contract out residential plowing.
Crews have been kept busy this winter plowing and removing levels of snow substantially above average, including a 28-inch deluge during one storm in December. Residents have complained — including emails and telephone calls to their elected officials — about the difficulty of getting around on deeply rutted roads.
Council members in general told Mumford they trust street maintenance supervisors to make the determination over when residential streets need to be plowed.
“To me, money is not the issue — it’s the logistics of making it happen,” said Councilman Shaun Brown. “How do you pull this off?”
“No matter how much we try to tell folks, there will be people who leave their cars out,” Mumford said, adding that the city will use the media, its website and other resources to alert residents they need to move their vehicle off the street ahead of snowplows coming in.
“Snow removal is very tricky,” he told the council. “Our crews watch the weather reports, and they’re talking to the National Weather Service all the time. The supervisor on call gets up multiple times all night and drives around, because one side of Billings might get five inches while another side gets an inch.”
“You have to trust us,” he said, “to know when to call somebody in and when not to.”
Brown said he received “probably 100 emails” on the topic this winter and told Mumford, “you probably got a thousand. To a letter, they said that emergency vehicles couldn’t get in. Is that accurate?”
Mumford said he had no reports from police, firefighters or AMR responders that they could not get in during an emergency, “but they had some difficulty in some places. Those agencies did say the ruts made it hard to get around.”
“There is no fine, sure, simple answer to this problem, even if the money is there,” Mayor Tom Hanel said. “It comes down to the experience of staff making decisions where and when.”
At least one resident urged the council to include residential plowing in next year’s budget.
“This is a danger,” said Bill Maske, owner of Rimrock Plumbing, “and it has to be addressed.”
Race relations exchange
Council members directed staff to begin preparing a response to the Human Relations Commission’s March 13 letter requesting that the council declare Billings a place that has “zero tolerance for racism, bigotry and hate crimes” and supports “respect and mutual understanding among the diversity of citizens.”
Commission Chair Kathy Walters said that Billings has not officially gone on record, as other Montana communities have, “against hate crimes, bigotry and bias.”
“This is the good and decent thing to do," she told the council. "It’s a good statement that we are good people and we will not put up with this.”
She cited recent incidents including a swastika painted on the rims and the controversy over a radio personality’s statements about the crowds that attend basketball games contested by Native American teams.
But Hanel took exception when Pat Leikam, who’s not on the current commission but has served on it in the past, said that the council doesn’t “know the harm you did when you failed to pass the nondiscrimination ordinance (in August 2014). You hurt a lot of people … Please don’t sit there and tell me there is no problem in this city, because there is.”
Hanel told her he doesn’t “appreciate a lecture to this council. We have indicated we will explore the matter. You are going to lose the support you have if you keep this up.”
Hanel did not allow Leikam to comment beyond her initial comments.