Mild winter leads to big cost savings for Kane, DuPage counties

By Erika Wurst For Chronicle Media


City of Aurora salt and plow trucks lined up on Feb. 24, 2016 in preparation for a mild snowstorm that was expected to hit.   (Photo courtesy of city of Aurora)

City of Aurora salt and plow trucks lined up on Feb. 24, 2016 in preparation for a mild snowstorm that was expected to hit. (Photo courtesy of city of Aurora)

Salt domes across Kane and DuPage counties remain full this winter, thanks to a mild weather that’s left salt stockpiles plentiful and crews well rested.

According to local public works and transportation departments, less than half of the salt normally spread on snow-covered roadways has been used this season.

Kane County Maintenance Superintendent Bill Edwards said the county’s crews have hit the snow-covered roads 23 times this winter season. The average winter calls for about 50 snow runs, he said.

“It’s a huge savings,” Edwards said. Each time DuPage County crews are tucked in bed instead of hitting the streets, the county is saving tens of thousands of dollars.

A “snow event”, which is a full call-out of all county snow vehicles for four hours, costs upwards of $30,000. That number can rise to $60,000 an event if icy road conditions require more time on the road, Edwards said.

Instead of spending money on overtime costs and fueling up salt-filled trucks, Edwards and his crews are working on more lucrative projects, and ones that are tangible.

“It’s allowing us to get caught up on other jobs like tree removal and trimming,” Edwards said. “It’s an endless job, and on an average winter we never get through the entire county. This year, we might make it.”

In Aurora, Director of Public Properties Roasario DeLeon is also tallying up savings left in the wake of this year’s mild winter.

“Snow operations is a lot of money spent that ultimately goes down the drain,” DeLeon said. “The benefit is keeping the public safe, but in the end, there’s not much to show for it.”

Luckily, he said, the mild winter has cut crews’ time on the road in half. On average, the city spends 260 hours on snow and ice operations per winter. This year, DeLeon sent out crews 11 times for a total of 108 hours; translating into a significant savings for the city, he said.

Overtime costs, fuel and salt prices, reduced vehicle maintenance and other dollars saved can be funneled into other projects, DeLeon said.

“The more days we have nice weather, the more days we can work outdoors and the more timely we’ll be on tree removals and pavement markings–the kind of work residents expect from us,” he said.

Surplus salt stock also translates into money saved the following year, when contracts for a smaller salt supply purchase can be written.

“We have plenty of stock on hand, and still have more (salt) to buy off the state contract,” Naperville Public Works Manager Chrstine Schwartzhoff said. “I anticipate ending the winter completely stocked.”

That’s because this winter, the city has used less than half of the salt it would normally put down.

“Salt is like spreading gold on the streets. It’s very expensive. It’s like throwing money off the back of a truck,” Schwartzhoff said. “It’s a safety feature, but at the end of winter, you have nothing to show for it.”

The city has used about 6,400 tons of salt this winter, at a point when they would have usually spread about 12,000 tons.

“We have plenty of stock on hand, and we still have more to buy off the state contract,” she said.

Towns are required to enter into a salt purchasing contract with a certain number of tons in mind. After making that commitment, they are required to take up at least 80 percent of that number, or up to 120 percent, depending on the winter’s weather.

“I feel like I should be in Vegas when we tell the state how much salt we’re committing to,” she said. “(Unpredictable weather) makes it a bit tricky. That said, we’re in a great position now.”

The city of Naperville has three salt domes capable of holding up to 18,000 tons of salt. Any surplus left after this winter will go to help offset costs for the following year.

But, Schwartzhoff and other public works officials know that they’re not entirely out of the woods just yet.

“The year of the blizzard, we had a very mild winter up until that storm in February,” she recalled. “Everyone here is superstitious about talking about savings just yet.”

And, while local counties and cities are delighting in the savings they’ve seen this winter, the same can’t be said for private plow contractors who depend on the snow to help pay the bills.

“It’s been a mess,” said Dan Retterrer of Montgomery Landscape, who contracts with the city of Aurora to assist in snow removal.

When the cities get slammed, they call on Retterrer and other contractors to help plow streets, lots and cul-de-sacs. This winter, Retterrer’s phone has been silent.

“It puts a hurt on everything,” he said. “But, I’ve been doing this for 30 years and learned you can’t depend on winter. You go broke when you depend on winter money.”

Retterrer said the season started out promising. A big storm before Thanksgiving blanketed roads with more than six inches of snow.

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a great year.’” he said. “Except for not.”

The season’s few call-outs pale in comparison to several years ago when Retterrer’s crews were out three times a week for eight weeks straight, he said.

“It was the winter that wouldn’t end,” he recalled. “But, you’ve just got to learn to live within your means. If you get a good winter, great. If you don’t, you just depend on landscaping money to get you through winter.”

Still, he said, there’s plenty of stuff to do in the meantime.

“Most of our spring equipment has gotten repainted, and the trucks have more wax on them this year than they’ve had in the last five,” he said.


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