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Budget cuts pinch snow removal in Minneapolis

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • December 24, 2009 - 8:09 PM

The holiday storm is likely to push Minneapolis' snow-removal budget into the red for the year and provide the most severe test yet for a city snow-removal workforce that's been forced to deal with cutbacks.

The city trimmed the snow-removal budget $250,000 this year, and a further $1.15 million cut has been ordered for 2010. That's taking an $8.4 million budget down to $7 million, and that's atop cuts of roughly $1 million in the previous five years, according to public works officials. The cuts were proposed by Mayor R.T. Rybak and approved by the City Council.

Some people, like Barb Shefland of Linden Hills, contacted just before the current storm, say they already feel they're not getting adequate plowing. "It's just disgusting because we pay a lot of taxes," she said.

Mike Kennedy, the city's longtime street maintenance and repair director, said that primary snow removal is proceeding as usual despite the cuts but that some secondary post-snow emergency clearing will be delayed, or may not happen.

He's already notified city political leaders that this storm will likely put snow and ice removal over budget for the year by an undetermined amount, meaning his division would dip into the city's $2 million contingency fund.

"We don't expect them to tell us to stop plowing, but we'll be mindful of the budget without jeopardizing public safety," Kennedy said.

Reducing full-time staff

However, politicians walk a fine line in skimping on snow removal, as illustrated by the 1979 ouster of Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic after perceived city ineffectiveness in dealing with blizzard-clogged streets angered voters. Minneapolis made its snow-removal cuts after Gov. Tim Pawlenty twice cut aid to cities to help balance the state budget.

The city's revamping of snow removal involves cutting costs by reducing its full-time staff of drivers, heavy equipment operators and laborers from 134 workers to 80, then setting up a force of reserve workers for snow emergencies and calling in qualified drivers from the city's public works roster to plow. The city also is renting less removal equipment.

The reserve workers are on call at home for roughly the same half-pay rate they'd get if they were collecting jobless pay, and get benefits. But they're paid regular rates for shifts when they're needed. The other public works drivers will be diverted from solid waste divisions that deal with such things as maintaining and constructing sewers and removing graffiti. Garbage collectors won't be diverted, however.

Post-emergency cleanup delayed

But between snow removal mobilizations, complaints over the condition of streets like Shefland's may take an extra shift to get attention, Kennedy said. Her street did get some added attention after she called 311.

The staffing changes were negotiated with three unions that represent snow-clearance workers, but the city's hand was helped by having the alternative of layoffs.

Although running into the red is not uncommon given the unpredictability of two snow seasons within each calendar-year budget, it's a bigger deal now that the city's general fund, which is largely property tax- and state-aid supported, is in straitened circumstances.

Kennedy said the changes mean the city will take longer to do post-emergency cleanup such as removing plow mounds at 3,600 bus stops or 24,000 street corners. Some of that work may not get done, he said. Also likely to be slowed is patching of potholes.

But Shefland said Wednesday she expects better. "They cut people, but people still have to drive."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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