Area cities adjust for winter weather prep, forecasts uncertain

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 90 views 

With the memory of last winter still fresh on the mind of many and some weather websites and almanacs predicting a repeat or in some cases worse winter this year, local governments and public agencies are seeing prices on winter weather essentials skyrocket.

According to Greg Riley, director of street and traffic control for the city of Fort Smith, the city normally receives donations of salt from local retailers emptying inventory each spring and that is what melts the city's snow and ice. But this year, he said donations from retailers like Walmart and A to Z did not materialize, forcing the city to purchase 100 tons of salt for the winter season at a cost of around $7,000.

The price, he said, was around eight cents per pound, a higher rate than normal with many cities around the nation caught of guard last year being extra cautious about this year's upcoming winter.

"The salt guys are getting five times as many requests for salt as normal," he said, adding that the rate for salt used to be cheaper than the eight cents paid by Fort Smith.

At Fort Smith Regional Airport, Executive Director John Parker said while the airport decided against purchasing higher amounts of winter chemicals this year – the airport averages past years when determining how much chemical deicer to purchase – the problem the airport is facing is a rise in prices on deicer due to the discontinuing of a long-used product.

"We've budgeted for this year 2014 and the 2015 we're working on right now and our response to winter weather is quite a bit higher than expenses dictate," he said. "The same volume will cost us more this year and next year than in the past," he said, adding that the budget has gone from an average of $15,000 to $20,000 in past years up to $50,000 this year.

But he said what saves the airport money is having all plow equipment as dual-purpose vehicles, meaning that a dump truck during the summer can be converted to a salt spreading, snow plowing truck during the winter months.

In Springdale, Director of Public Utilities Sam Goade said in order to prepare for extreme winters like last year and to receive a larger discount on supplies so his municipality is not hit hard by fluctuations in price or availability of product, he requested funding from the city for a new storage building that could house excess amounts of salt and "grit."

"Last year was an extraordinary winter. We used a lot of salt and we were always having to re-order. So I asked the mayor and city council to consider additional funding for a salt storage building for 500 tons of salt instead of just 50 (tons), plus 500 tons of grit. It needs to be kept dry, as well."

He said the additional storage capacity will allow the city to order mass quantities, saving money when the product and chemicals like beet juice that are mixed into the salt/sand mixture are ordered during the off season in bulk.

"We can order our salt in September, October before the big maddening demand hits in the middle of winter and should be able to get better pricing," Goade said.

The new storage building will cost $151,500 to construct and should be complete by winter 2016, while an additional $154,620 was used to purchase four new plows and two new salt mixture spreaders. It brings the city's total up to seven plows and five spreaders, with Goade noting that all the vehicles are multi-purpose similar to Fort Smith Regional Airport's snow removal vehicles.

But with all the extra prep and money spent by some local governments preparing for the worst based on predictions, Staff Meteorologist Joe Sellers at the National Weather Service in Tulsa said it was too early to really tell what could happen with the winter.

"The prediction on that kind of thing is still in its infancy," he said. "I don't care where you get it from, we're just not that accurate that far out."

Sellers said the best information available based on climatology data from the NWS actually indicates what could be an average year.

"Over the three months (of November, December, and January), indications are favorable for either above (average), below (average) or equal for either."

Because of "our models," Sellers said he would advise city officials against extraordinary costs because the predictions could not pan out leaving local agencies on the hook for any money expended.

For this reason, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Gordon Floyd of Fort Smith Public Schools said the district prepares its school calendars more than a year in advance.

"We extend the school calendar at the end of the year, if needed," he said. "But some districts have make up days built into the calendar. We don't do that since most families have vacations planned during those times (that are typically used to make up snow days) and the absentee rate is higher."

Floyd said even if days are added on to the end of the school year, the most additional school days he can recall in much of his decades of teaching occurred just last year and it was only six additional classroom days.