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Tough winter tests Public Works resources

Greg Hermansen, a water operator with the City of New Richmond, heats an underground water pipe in February. Municipal workers put in long hours to unfreeze pipes throughout the city this past winter. (Photo by Micheal Foley)

Whether it was layers of snow and ice or extreme cold that caused frozen water pipes, this past winter was a miserable one for the City of New Richmond’s Public Works department and public utilities.

Public Works Director Jeremiah Wendt assumed his position in November and was immediately thrust into a difficult position by the severe winter.

“I think it’s the probably the worst — as far as temperatures and snow — really the worst winter in memory for most people,” Wendt said.

Snow removal

As far as the effect on the city, Wendt said snow removal was considerable.

“That’s probably the main area where we’re seeing it in the budget now with all the fuel that was needed to run the plows,” Wendt said. “Obviously we used a lot more than what we would in a typical year.”

When it snows, Wendt typically sends out six pieces of snow removal equipment to clear roughly 60 miles of city streets. This winter, not only the number of snowstorms, but also the time of day struck created extra headaches for city crews.

“If it snows overnight and stops, we can generally have the whole city plowed in about six hours,” Wendt said.

This winter, storms tended to linger longer than six hours, or struck just before major commute times.

“When it’s still snowing, we try to get out and get the main roads cleared before we get a lot of traffic on them,” Wendt said. “If it keeps snowing, depending on how fast it’s falling, we kind of have to keep up with it to make sure things are cleared for the morning and again for the evening commute.”

Frozen pipes

The other big issue the city dealt with this winter was water service freeze-ups, which have cost the city more than $80,000 in equipment and overtime pay.

“We’re kind of in the midst of applying for a potential FEMA grant to offset some of those costs that we’ve identified,” Wendt said.

Some water lines, including at Mary Park and Citizens Field, and a few residences where people were gone all winter suffered considerable damage once they froze solid, expanded and ruptured pipes.

“Fortunately, we’ve been limited to maybe a half dozen of those that we had to dig up and repair the lines,” Wendt said. “We were working on them in the last couple weeks, and we will be again this week.”

Budget concerns

While the potential FEMA grant would help alleviate costs for New Richmond Utilities, fuel, salt, sand and overtime for snow removal will cut into the Public Works budget this year.

Wendt said about 60 percent of the budget has been spent for snow and ice control, which is typically used to pay contractors for salt, sand and hauling snow away.

He said that amount is typical for the first quarter of the year, and he hopes that the remaining 40 percent will be enough to cover costs in the fourth quarter when snow and ice will return.

The budget for salaries remains on track, according to Wendt, but the budget for gas and oil has taken a big hit.

“We’ve spent about 65 percent of that budget,” Wendt said. “That has to do with having the equipment out on the roads longer and obviously using more fuel associated with that. That’s something we’ll continue to keep an eye on. As we continue through the summer we have projects that still require us to have fuel to keep us out there working.”

Among the non-winter projects the city is already working on are preparing parks for the summer season, collecting yard waste and filling potholes.

“You’re going to have that any spring, but when you have as long and as hard of a winter as we’ve had, that kind of tests everything — your equipment, your roads — everything kind of gets put through more severe duress.”

Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley worked at RiverTown Multimedia from July 2013 to June 2015 as editor at the New Richmond News. 
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