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Weekly Review: Snowstorms; sidewalks; and dual-sort recycling

Weekly Review by the Auburn City Manager

By Glenn E. Aho

auburn city manager

Think of a black cat, right now. The fact that you probably are already thinking of a black cat is an example of how the power of suggestion works. It’s powerful.

What if I told you that the City of Auburn is reducing and prioritized plowing? The power of suggestion would tell us that no matter what you see with regard to the city plowing snow, any hiccup in our service is due to the “reduced and prioritized plowing.” The city has received calls of concern that plows have not come down their street and that some residents want their streets listed with a “higher” priority.

The power of suggestion has people believing the City of Auburn has significantly reduced plowing and has reprioritized people’s plow routes so that instead of being plowed four times a night, it’s now only once—if at all. Interestingly enough, there are only a few differences this year as compared to years past.

Last year is not much of a comparison, as it was so mild. However, the city has only reduced its plowing from 21 to 20 plow trucks during the day. It certainly doesn’t explain the countless concerns expressed by residents. Furthermore, the reduced plowing goes into effect between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m, but only if it makes sense to do—obviously it would not make sense to reduce plowing during a blizzard.

Only twice this winter we’ve reduced plowing during the overnight hours and to our surprise we have no complaints or concerns as a result of those reduced hours. With regard to the “prioritization of streets,” nothing has changed but the terminology. We wanted a system to help plow truck drivers to use better independent judgment and to standardize our plowing, so we used the prioritization terminology. The streets are being plowed with the same urgency as in past years.

What’s different this year than other years is the type of snowstorms we’ve had. Two storms unfolded differently than weather forecasts had predicted and at snowfall rates higher than normal. One inch per hour is normal; three inches per hour is not normal.

Under normal conditions, it can take up to four to six hours for one plow truck to complete their route. During blizzard conditions, it can take much longer. But if conditions worsen, the trucks are all pulled to plow the major arterials, such as Center Street and Minot Avenue. When that occurs, there are times when neighborhood streets can remain unplowed for many hours at a time.

Also a challenge this winter has been the temperature. The normal temperature for snowstorms is about 30 degrees. When the temperature falls into the teens and heavy accumulation builds up, salt and calcium do not work as effectively. Therefore, roads are more slippery than normal. In other words, regardless of staff and equipment, given these storm conditions, we could not have done any better. In years past, despite our best efforts, accidents have occurred and streets have gone unplowed.

If I were to use the power of suggestion to everyone’s advantage, it would be to tell our motorists that snowy roads are not hazardous. Rather, it’s the speed at which people drive that is hazardous.

Cost of Snowstorms. Four storms this winter season have cost taxpayers $146,300, which is an average of $36,575 per storm. Taxpayers paid $49,312 for the December 26 storm and $37,424 for the January 12 storm.

The past three storms have cost, on average, $5,600 per inch of snow. Also, on average, plow truck drivers log over 4,900 miles for each of these storms. For the average snowstorm, it requires the taxes collected from 10 average homes to pay for the storm costs.

Sidewalk Plowing. The City of Auburn has about 50 miles of sidewalk, and roughly half of those are maintained during the wintertime. Roads always take priority over sidewalks. But as snowstorms subside, the sidewalks gradually take greater precedence. Deputy Public Works Director Denis D’Auteuil recently said that David Knox is working to develop a Sidewalk Prioritization Plan, so that overall winter sidewalk maintenance is efficient.

The plan will help crew members new to sidewalk plowing, but also ensure that our sidewalks are maintained in a consistent and predictable manner—which is most cost effective. Knox will expand this standardizing of winter programs to include roads, sidewalks, parking lots, parking bans, etc. Denis said that once these plans are put into writing, residents will have a better understanding of how the department operates.

Foremost, Denis said, he wants the public to have confidence in the department’s planning abilities.

Dual-Sort Recycling. The City of Auburn has 8,376 households; of those, Pine Tree Waste makes 6,595 stops to pick up trash. Last summer we estimated that about 2,500 homes, or 30 percent, were participating in the city’s recycling program. Given the low participation rate, the city justified changing the recycling pickup from weekly to twice a month.

Recently city workers took an actual count of the households leaving recycling products curbside, rather than estimating the households as we had previously. The crew counted 2,453 households participating in the recycling program. This would suggest that very few people have stopped recycling, if any, despite the city decreasing the convenience.

As we move into another fiscal year, the City of Auburn will continue with the every-other-week recycling program. The bi-monthly recycling program requires less fuel, less wear and tear on equipment and roads and is more environmentally friendly than weekly service. Though the program is working okay, it still needs to be better.

We need to develop a system to better communicate with our residents. Deputy Public Works Director Denis D’Auteuil said a great deal of time is spent by the supervisors and office staff responding to resident complaints, which is costly. A presentation will soon be made to the City Council to upgrade the city’s website to include a more sophisticated “Alert Me” function to our website. Drawing from data already on our Esri GIS system, residents could receive email and text alerts notifying residents of their recycling day, trash day or interruptions or changes in service.

Using innovative technology to better communicate will help reduce staff time as it relates to complaints and it will help increase recycling awareness among our residents.

If the City of Lewiston moves toward single-sort recycling, the City of Auburn, which now brings its recycling material to Lewiston, might need to find another outlet. Single-stream recycling may be convenient, but single-stream processers keep whatever revenues are generated from the recycling material.

So far this year, the Auburn has collected about $28,864 from the recycling materials. An alternative that the city’s Recycling Committee has explored is dual-sort, which offers more convenience, but retains for the city any revenue generated from the material.

A dual-sort system separates paper, cardboard and newspaper from plastic, tin, and glass—technically, tins cans are recycled whether people place them in the trash or recycling, as all incinerated materials are screened and the metal recycled.

We continue to consider ways and means to design the most efficient recycling program for our residents. Our recycling rate is now 30 percent. But if that were to significantly increase, the city could contemplate recycling every week and picking up trash up bi-monthly—but that’s for a future conversation.

Community Cords. When it’s necessary to trim and cut trees owned by the City of Auburn, the stumpage is sold and placed into the Community Cords account. This account helps those who might not qualify for traditional general assistance, yet are cold nevertheless and in need.

Currently the account has about $5,600 and is earmarked for helping Auburn residents with heating assistance. Dorothy Meagher manages the account, and residents who think they might qualify for heating assistance from the Community Cords program should call Dot at 333-6601, ext. 1412.

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