PALMER — Two of the six contractors in charge of neighborhood snow removal in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough said they won’t sign a refreshed borough settlement offer on unpaid invoices from last year, as part of an ongoing billing dispute that could disrupt work going into winter.
The six private contractors maintain Mat-Su roads through a system of 16 road service areas. Work is funded by property taxes. Early this year, five of those contractors submitted $7.1 million in additional invoices for work clearing snow pushed into roads from private properties over a winter of near-record snowfall in the region.
Borough officials first offered to settle the bills by giving the contractors a 20% boost against the value of their contracts backdated to Jan. 1, with a requirement that they file no more overage bills going forward. Four of the contractors rejected that first offer, saying it did little to cover their costs and that a block on future overage bills creates too much financial risk.
A second borough offer sent in late September further boosted the back payments by thousands of dollars. But because it still contained a rule blocking claims for work that could fall outside the contract, officials with two of the contractors, Wasilla-based Big Dipper Construction and Big Lake-based Ficklin Construction, said they won’t be signing it.
Combined, the two companies service more than 400 miles of borough roads through seven road service area contracts.
“There’s just no way we could sign something that cuts us off for any future claims known or unknown,” said Todd Minnick of Big Dipper Construction, who holds three of the contracts, covering 288 miles. “It’s pretty ugly.”
Borough officials said they could not discuss the terms of the offers or the ongoing dispute, citing attorney-client privilege. The negotiations have been the subject of multiple closed-door sessions with borough Assembly members, with the most recent such meeting Tuesday evening.
If contractors refuse to work this season, the borough will go after their bonds and hire different plow operators, borough officials said in mid-September. It was not immediately clear whether other contractors in the borough have equipment on hand or available staff to absorb that workload.
Minnick said he doesn’t want it to come to that.
“We just want to get out there and do our jobs — snow is coming,” Minnick said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward.”
The Mat-Su wasn’t the only area with snow problems over the 2022-23 season. In Anchorage, a series of December storms closed schools for four days as crews struggled to clear streets. A 2024 budget proposed by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson calls for some additional funding for snow maintenance, and a revamped plan intended to avoid last winter’s challenges.
At issue in Mat-Su is overage work created by what’s referred to as “homeowner snow.” Borough code bars property owners from pushing snow from private property into the right-of-way, with fines starting at $150. But in the past that rule was rarely enforced, and contractors are required to clear snow from the road regardless of how it gets there. Moving snow into the right-of-way is also illegal in Anchorage and carries a $300 fine.
In years prior to the 2022-23 season, Mat-Su officials permitted the road service area contractors to charge extra for work clearing homeowner snow. But a new set of top officials at the borough’s public works department interpreted the contracts differently, instead requiring that the current contractors absorb the cost.
Minnick’s overage bill at Big Dipper for last winter’s homeowner snow removal totaled $1.9 million, he said. The borough is offering him about $303,000 in back pay, according to settlement documents.
Brian Ficklin, who owns Ficklin Construction, said he billed the borough $1.3 million. He has been offered about $107,000 in back pay, settlement documents state.
David Spain, whose company Spain Excavating holds one road service contract in Trapper Creek, did not return a request for comment and a copy of his offer was not available. Borough officials confirmed he has not yet accepted any settlement offer as of Monday.
Meanwhile, borough officials plan to step up enforcement of homeowner snow rules this coming season by launching a public information campaign, and sending more infraction warnings and fine notices.
“We’re trying to get proactive, but we’re still going to have the need to send letters,” Alex Strawn, the borough’s planning and land use director, told the Assembly early this month.
In past seasons, sending those notices was prohibitively expensive at about $8 per letter due to a borough law requiring they be sent by certified mail, Strawn told the Assembly. A measure passed unanimously by the assembly Oct. 3 drops that rule, allowing officials to use regular priority mail instead.