"We were out a lot more this winter," French says. "We were out just about every day. In the past we got that break for a few days or a week in January. We just didn't get it this year. It was a couple of inches here, an inch there, three inches there... it takes as much sand and salt to get rid of two inches of snow as it does to get rid of a foot of snow. Whether you're plowing two inches or plowing a foot you're still laying down the same amount of salt and sand to get rid of the ice that's underneath it. I'm still not sure we're done with it yet!"
French leads a crew of 14 men who are responsible for plowing the township each winter. The $472,476 to plow 94 miles of town roads and 42 additional miles of county roads represents almost 20% (or just short of 1/5) of the Highway Department's $2,454,004.00 budget. That includes regular hours, overtime, fuel for the trucks, salt and sand. That's sufficient when we have an average winter. But snow doesn't check the town budget before it comes down.
French says he is close to the 150 hours of overtime allotted for each man for plowing for the fiscal year. Some employees are as high as 145 overtime hours because of the extended winter. But French expects more plowing will be necessary before the year is done.
"We're probably right at maximum overtime for the entire fiscal year right now, which includes this coming November and December," he says. "The Town Board does a good job of keeping money for not just snow removal, but floods, tornadoes, and any other kind of disaster. You have to keep some money in the budget for that. You just never know. If we have a normal November and December this year I'm sure I'm going to have to go before the board and ask for money to get through those next two months."
If the Board decides to deny added funding the roads simply don't get plowed until the next fiscal year begins in January. But French says he's never known them to say no to plowing. He adds that light winters make up for heavy ones, so spending evens out over years. But extended cold weather like we've suffered this winter causes additional budget problems.
"It doesn't impact the equipment as much as it impacts the roads," French says. "The frost gets deep down in the roads, and then we get pot holes. As you've seen throughout the northeast this year, especially in the cities, there have been a lot of potholes. So it costs on both sides. It costs for the winter maintenance, but it also costs for the summer maintenance because you're using extra money that you would have been paving roads with. You've got to use some of the money to repair the roads that you weren't expecting to fall apart."
French likes to wait until the weather is improved enough, usually by early May, to use hot mix asphalt. He says that at $70 per ton you can fix quite a few potholes for $70. If pot holes get too bad in the winter they are filled with cold mix, but French says it doesn't hold up as well as a hot-mix repair. If there are too many potholes on one road, it gets bumped up on the priority list for repaving. That means that roads scheduled to be paved this summer may be bumped down on the priority list.
"It doesn't wreak havoc with the list, but it does change it," French says. "The board likes us to give them a five year paving plan, but in the northeast you really can't do that because of the way the frost is and the winters are -- it changes by the year. A lot of years we have to move the top priority roads down a few and move others up. If a road completely falls apart... if we have to tear it up and rebuild it, it costs more money. That would affect other roads."
The reason that matters is that the highway budget is lower than it was four or five years ago when the department typically scheduled about ten miles for repaving per season. On that schedule it would take ten years to entirely repave the Town's roads. Now it's on an approximately 25 year cycle, which means that roads at the top of the list for repaving really need it by the time they are slated for maintenance.
From December through March two men are on duty from ten o'clock at night to six in the morning. They're there to keep the main roads clear of snow and make sure that busses can return safely to the school campus after sporting events, and that people can get home safely. In heavy snows they call French or Deputy Supervisor Charlie 'Cricket' Purcell around 3:30 in the morning to get a larger crew in to get the roads cleared off before the school busses start operating and people need to get to work. The two men on call keep the main roads clear, including Triphammer, Hillcrest and Warren Roads, as well as hills in Ludlowville and Myers.
"If a fire truck or an ambulance needs to get up we want to make sure we've got people here that can take care of that kind of thing," French says. "We try to get over everything at least once before the school busses get on the road between six and six-fifteen."
The two roads in Lansing the Highway Department does not plow are Routes 34 and 34B. Those are state roads, and while calls about snow on state roads come to his office the best he can do is refer them to the State Department Of Transportation (DOT), which maintains a garage in Ithaca that handles state roads in Tompkins County.
"Realistically we're not insured to plow the state roads," he says. "If it becomes a safety issue -- for instance, if the road gets really slippery down by the schools -- I may tell the guys, or they may do it on their own, to spread a little bit of sand so school busses can get up and down the hill. 756-7072. I know the number by heart! We have to use it a lot."
French keeps the phones manned as much as possible because calls come in regularly during bad weather. He says of the calls about town and county roads are informational, people asking if such and such a road is passible.
"We don't get very many complaints," he says. "We get many more compliments than we do complaints on the way the roads are maintained in the wintertime."