Members of the Anchorage Assembly on Wednesday questioned city and state personnel on their handling of November’s declared snow emergency. At a special meeting of the Enterprise and Utility Oversight Committee, members praised heavy equipment operators for their work digging the city out, while also floating several ideas for how officials can improve on procedures nobody is fully satisfied with.
“We’re hearing from our constituents that they expect, not a perfect level of service, but a better level of service,” said Assembly member Daniel Volland.
At the meeting, he and others channeled weeks worth of residents’ complaints about missed medical appointments, damaged vehicles, school closures, vanishing traffic lanes and neighborhoods that went a week or more without seeing any plows or graders on their roads.
“Everybody wishes we could have plowed the snow faster,” said municipal manager Kent Kohlhase.
Members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration presented an overview of the after-action assessment they compiled at the end of November, covering “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” according to chief of staff Mario Bird.
The administration said the main cause for the slowed response was the consistency of the snow itself, followed by a second storm that piled more accumulation atop the first round.
“The Municipality of Anchorage cannot move 40 inches of wet, heavy snow in 84 hours,” Bird said, referring to the city’s goal of plowing all residential roads within three and a half days.
That dense snow was churned up by road traffic in places, then freezing into perilous ruts that wrought havoc on cars, trucks, and even emergency response vehicles as temperatures dropped.
According to Kohlhase, several members of the municipal workforce with decades of experience handling street maintenance told him it was the worst, most difficult snow event they’d seen in their careers.
“By far,” Kohlhase added.
Bronson made a quick decision to pull some municipal equipment away from work in residential neighborhoods to assist the Alaska Department of Transportation with scraping clear some of the trouble spots on state-owned roads.
“This delayed the neighborhood plow outs, but this was a safety issue,” Bird said.
That arrangement was subsequently formalized through a memorandum of understanding. The state will be reimbursing the city about $35,000 for 138 hours of work by municipal graders, according to Sean Holland, who directs the central region office that covers the state transportation department’s operations in and around Anchorage.
Overall, Holland said, the state will spend approximately $2 million on its cleanup response to November’s snowstorms.
It is rare for state officials to appear before an Assembly committee, and some of the members’ questions went beyond just last month’s snow response toward larger policies and trends affecting local services.
Holland said one of the main hindrances on state operations is a 70% vacancy rate in Anchorage among vehicle mechanics servicing its fleet, an especially big problem given how high-needs much of the heavy equipment involved in snow removal is.
The state has 32 operator positions budgeted for snow removal in Anchorage compared to the municipality’s 84, though the two entities are responsible for nearly the same amount of lane-miles and sidewalks. Within the district’s $43 million in operating expenses for the central district, Anchorage receives the same amount of money as the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. A sizable, though smaller, share of the budget also goes to plowing and snow removal in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
In the course of Wednesday’s meeting, Assembly members and officials tossed out a number of ideas for changes to the city’s snow plow response. They included convening a community coalition of equipment operators who might serve as an auxiliary plow force, dispatching resources around town proportionally to snow totals, and attaching grader blades to garbage trucks.
One set of actions recommended by the Bronson administration is better managing the public’s expectations about when they can expect the streets to be fully plowed. As part of that, Bird said they are considering scaling the timeline for a full plow-out to how much snow falls. For example, the city’s current goal of 84 hours might be notched up to 96 or 120 hours if 4 feet of wet snow hit the city in a single day.
Bird said the administration is also examining whether it should buy more equipment. But he cautioned Assembly members that they are reticent to add more permanent positions and expand the pool of heavy equipment operators based on a single record-setting snowfall.
Holland with the state echoed the same reluctance: “You don’t want to build a church for Easter Sunday. You don’t want to staff to a record snowfall,” he said.
According to Kohlhase, for the municipality to have completely plowed out its roads in under 84 hours, it would have required doubling the city’s current resources, adding 30 more graders and 60 more drivers at a cost of approximately $18 million tacked on to the annual budget.
But several Assembly members suggested there was plenty of room between the status quo and that upper level estimate.
“I’m pretty sure that even the most conservative person in Anchorage would spend a little bit more money to put some more yellow iron on the road,” said member Randy Sulte, referring to yellow-painted heavy equipment in the municipal fleet.
Committee chair Zac Johnson asked the administration for more information on how different levels of staffing and equipment will impact snow removal services across the municipality, saying that taxpayers need better data to make decisions about potential government spending.
“It lets people decide for themselves what’s reasonable, like how much am I willing to be taxed to get the level of service I expect? So I think that should be part of the conversation,” he said.
Johnson also questioned the administration’s strategy of increasingly relying on contractors to handle snowplowing and hauling work after heavy winter weather events.
Looming over those decisions is the fact of a changing climate. As Southcentral Alaska’s environment warms, many long-term forecasts anticipate extra moisture that will lead to more and wetter snow.
Member Anna Brawley pointed out that last year’s muddled and slow plow out was also blamed, in part, on record-breaking accumulation early in the winter.
“I’m surprised to hear you say you’re not recommending increased staffing,” she said to the administration. “It does feel like this is more and more the norm.”