Snow Hitting Towns, Workers and Budgets Hard

February 14, 2014
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By John Burton

It’s been one heck of a winter.

The ongoing work to keep the roads clear, have enough salt and sand available, keep equipment running and not overtaxing public works department employees has been trying for communities in the Two River area.

“The storms have been challenging,” said Red Bank Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels, acknowledging his observation is an understatement.

Sickels is not alone in his assessment of how this winter has been hitting communities.

“The biggest issue has just been the frequency of these events,” said Anthony Mercantante, Middletown’s township administrator. “People are just getting frustrated that there is snow and ice everywhere.”

And, it doesn’t seem to be going to let up, many municipal officials said with a groan.

“There’s nothing fun about it,” said Mark Philpot, Sea Bright’s, public works superintendent.

One of the biggest challenges facing municipalities this season has been trying to get enough ice melting material, especially salt.

“It’s no secret that salt has become a hot commodity,” said Theresa Casagrande, Fair Haven’s business administrator. What has help her town, Casagrande said, is a long-standing good relationships with vendors. “We had to pay a premium for it, but we have been able to get it,” she said.

Rumson Public Works Supervisor Mark Wellner said, “We’ve had so many storms back to back that getting supplies has been difficult.”

“It was getting a little hairy there for a while” as supplies of salt were diminishing and more snow was being forecasted, according to Jim Gannon, Little Silver director of public works. During a normal year, his department would order and possibly use two 75-ton salt deliveries. So far this year, the borough has gotten four 75-ton deliveries from one vendor, and, when that company couldn’t meet demand, Little Silver acquired another 300 tons from a different company.

Last weekend, Little Silver asked Red Bank for a truckload of salt to tide the borough over until Little Silver received its scheduled delivery, Gannon said.

“These are the situations where you do reach out and work with each other,” he said.

Red Bank officials have been holding their breath as they searched for new vendors.

“The demand for salt and ice-melting material has increased three-fold,” Sickels said, as New Jersey communities not only compete with others in the northeast for the product but also with places like Atlanta, Ga., and other sites in the deep south, which rarely get any appreciable snowfall. “The whole country has an increased demand this year,” he said.

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Red Bank’s Department of Public Utilities was down to about three truckloads of ice melter late last week. But it was able to find another vendor in Pennsylvania that quickly delivered 50 tons and promised to have another 80 tons shortly, Sickels said.

“We’re one of those communities that are very concerned” about a salt shortage, Atlantic Highlands Borough Administrator Adam Hubeny said. Since Jan. 21 the borough’s public works department has ordered 70 tons and used most of it. “We’re down to our last 6 or 7 tons and that will not be enough to get us through the storm they’re predicting for Thursday,” Hubeny said earlier in the week.

Atlantic Highlands officials have reached out to state legislators, other communities and Monmouth County for help and are waiting to hear if it will be forthcoming. The next step may be contacting the governor’s office to seek assistance if the department hasn’t gotten any, he said.

Monmouth Beach, a 1-square-mile town, has used about 120 tons so far – four times more than normal, Public Works Supervisor Allan Miller said.

By his count there have been 12 events that require spreading salt. “We have enough for another storm or two,” he said. Because Monmouth Beach has a purchasing agreement with Monmouth County for salt, as long as the county can get it, it will be available to the borough, Miller said, adding, “the salt budget is through the roof.”

Though hard numbers aren’t available, officials in several towns shared Casagrande’s perspective when she said, “Like every other municipality in the state of New Jersey – and certainly in this area – the additional snow and storms do directly affect the budget.”

Middletown’s Mercantante estimated that the township is “approaching the seven-figure range at this point just for January” for the cost of overtime, private contractors used for some snowplowing, equipment and repairs and material. “We’ll have to account for all these costs that we’ve occurred.”

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“These storms, I don’t want to call them budget busters, but they do put a strain on the budget,” Little Silver Administrator Kimberly Jungfer said. Little Silver has so far has spent about  $30,000 just in materiel. That’s twice as much as last year. “And, we’re just into February,” she said.

“The money we would usually put in the budget for overtime and materiel (for the year) has already been expended,” with the budget yet to be submitted for the borough council’s consideration, Hubeny said.

The toll is being seen with employees, who are working long hours and overnights, and on the equipment used to clear ice and snow.

“If you’ve never sat behind the wheel of a plow at 2 o’clock in the morning in a whiteout condition,” you should try it, Jungfer said. “You’ll have to give these guys a lot of credit … It’s rough on the DPW.”

Red Bank’s Sickels agrees.

“You got guys coming in at 5 (a.m.), hauling garbage all morning and then you get the snow on top of that. These guys are beat by the time you get snow,” he said.

For Monmouth Beach and Sea Bright there is an added concern with snow: “It’s the high tides that come with it” and flooding, Philpot noted.

A high tide often requires Philpot to assign an employee to man the pumping station to mitigate flooding – meaning one less worker to address salting and plowing.

“The next thing you know you have ice on the side streets,” with the floodwaters freezing in these temperatures, he said.

“It comes up and floods the catch basins” with water and ice backing up, Miller said, “and the next thing we have is ice floes in the streets.”

Officials were not looking forward to Thursday’s storm that was expected to hit after press time.

“Let’s hope for an early spring,” Sickels said.

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