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Erik Burgess, Published February 12 2013

Dustup over Moorhead snow cleanup

MOORHEAD – All Tim Zoerner wanted to do was leave his home.

But he couldn’t for two straight days – stranded Sunday in the blizzard, and again Monday because the snow from Sunday was still blocking his street.

A city plow didn’t even touch the street in front of Zoerner’s south Moorhead home until 4 a.m. Tuesday, he said, more than 24 hours after the 10-inch snowfall that struck Fargo-Moorhead was done falling. In his 26 years living in Moorhead, it’s never been that bad, he said.

“It sucks living here,” Zoerner said. “Build a new house in the nice neighborhood and you have to wait a whole frickin’ day to get plowed out. It’s ridiculous.”

Zoerner isn’t the only one complaining. He said the lagging snowplows have been the talk of the town since the snow, and City Councilwoman Brenda Elmer said she fielded phone calls “for hours” on Monday night from residents who were still stuck with a snow-clogged street.

“People are really ticked off,” Elmer said.

Elmer said Tuesday she will raise the issue at the council’s next meeting, asking staff to explore more options for clearing roads, such as hiring private plows after the next big storm.

“We just need to be able to react quicker,” she said.

‘All hands on deck’

Residential roads are a lower priority than major thoroughfares and emergency routes, so complaints about plows being slow to clear neighborhoods are common after big storms.

Ben Dow, Fargo’s director of public works, said he expects the first pass of snowplows to take 24 hours after a 9- to 10-inch snowfall. Fargo and West Fargo met that goal, while Moorhead missed it.

Snowfall stopped around 2 a.m. Monday, Dow said.

Fargo had plowed every street at least once by 6 p.m. Monday. The city has 440 miles of road, meaning its street crews covered about 28 miles an hour.

West Fargo had its first pass wrapped up around 10 p.m. Monday. With 150 miles of road, they plowed at a rate of about 8 miles an hour.

Moorhead, with 195 miles of city roads, had finished a first pass on each of the city’s roads by noon Tuesday. That’s roughly 6 miles plowed per hour.

Despite the complaints, Chad Martin, Moorhead’s operations director, said the 34-hour response time was “pretty commendable” considering the conditions.

“You’re not going to get a 12-hour response,” he said. “We don’t have the resources.”

Moorhead’s budget for street plowing has been relatively flat for several years, said City Manager Michael Redlinger. If the city wants to significantly change the plowing response, the council would have to find new revenue or move money from other budgetary items, he said.

That’s an unfortunate reality, said another south Moorhead resident, JoAnn Johnson. She said in her 37 years in Moorhead, she’s never seen the city respond so inefficiently.

“It seems like something went wrong somewhere,” Johnson said. “It was really very, very annoying.”

As with any major snow storm, it was “all hands on deck” when it came to plowing the streets, Redlinger said. Basically every city vehicle with a plow was out clearing a road, he said, including the city’s forestry and sanitation departments.

Combining public works employees during a major snow event is pretty common, Dow said.

“I was very happy with our response time,” Dow said.

Still, he said complaints flooded in on Monday morning, another common occurrence when the city gets a lot of snow.

“Someone always has to be last,” Dow said, adding that the city tries to rotate neighborhoods so the same area isn’t getting plowed last every time.

Long cleanup ahead

Elmer wants Moorhead to consider all options to expedite plowing, including looking at contracting out for more private plows.

Martin said that option is unlikely for two reasons.

Contractors typically don’t use angled plows, so they can’t clear streets as efficiently as a city plow, he said. The city contracts privately for snow removal, not plowing.

Also, there’s a supply and demand problem. After a heavy snow, hiring plows is expensive, Martin said.

“You pay premium dollars for that labor,” he said.

Another option the Moorhead council could discuss is a snowplow tracking system, like what West Fargo has had in place since last November.

Thanks to GPS technology, residents in West Fargo can see online where plows are and which streets have been plowed, salted or both.

“I just think that would help folks know what they’re getting for their money,” Elmer said.

The startup cost for the system in West Fargo was about $55,000 taken from the city’s 2012 street department budget, and it takes about $10,000 a year to maintain.

West Fargo city officials say they installed the system in part to help cut down on phone calls from concerned residents but also to track how city resources are being used.

Chris Brungardt, West Fargo’s assistant public works manager, said after the snowstorm, West Fargo’s city website had 2,000 hits on Monday.

“Even if 10 percent of those are (potential) phone calls, that’s 200 calls,” he said, adding that it seemed like he was fielding fewer phone complaints Monday.

Cleanup for all three cities will continue for at least another week, as plows work to widen the passages through residential streets and trucks haul away the mountainous piles of snow.

“It’s going to take a while,” Dow said. “This was a big storm.”

Redlinger said it was likely Moorhead would call for another snow removal declaration sometime next week in the campus area.

In Moorhead, to sign up for city snow alerts, visit www.cityofmoorhead.com/


West Fargo residents can view snowplow progress by visiting www.westfargond.gov and clicking on the snow plow “quick link.”

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Forum News Service reporter Karen Huber contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518