Mild winter saving city cash, causing work shortage

Published 7:46 am Thursday, January 18, 2007

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES – Two unseasonably warm winters in a row have saved the City of Niles Department of Public Works a little cash.
The unusual weather has also meant public works director Neil Coulston has been assigning department employees to jobs not typically done during the winter. So, is he running out of projects for people to do?
"If this continues for a couple more weeks, yeah. We'll just have to plow more streets even without snow on them," Coulston joked. "It's kind of a struggle this year trying to find work to keep the guys busy, but we have been able to do that."
Coulston said Niles participates in a state-sponsored purchasing program called MiDeal that sells salt statewide and provides a break on the price. The cost at $38 per ton is much cheaper than some neighboring states that charge more than $50, Coulston said.
The only problem, he added, is municipalities involved in MiDeal have to agree to purchase each year at least 70 percent of the amount of salt they've committed to in the agreement. Niles annually commits to buying 1,200 tons of salt.
"So, we've got a lot of salt to use for the agreement. Last year was an unusual winter … and we only used less than 800 tons of salt and our average is 1,200. This winter so far we've used 300 tons and the bulk of that was in December," Coulston said, adding the amount of overtime hours employees are working are also down significantly. "So with less salt used, no overtime and less wear and tear on equipment we're saving some money."
However, Coulston said the city is yet to make its first salt purchase of this season and there is a holding fee the state charges when municipalities do not use their required amount of salt. Nonetheless, Coulston added since joining the MiDeal program a few years ago the City of Niles has probably saved $10,000 to $15,000 per year on salt.
The public works department currently employs 18 people, far less than the peak amount of 50 working during the summer. There are generally 12 department employees specifically assigned to snow plowing, Coulston said. Aside from city streets, they are also responsible for plowing City Hall and other government buildings, sidewalks surrounding the schools and sidewalk routes leading to the schools to make sure students are not walking in the streets, he added.
Coulston said employees have been busy repairing signs, sanitary sewers, parks and street curbs, which is "amazing" to see during the cold months. The department has been unable to do road repairs like filling in pot holes, however, because hot asphalt plants are not open and this time of year is not ideal for making pavement repairs, Coulston said.