The district carried about $6 million of unspent money from last year’s budget into this year. Coincidentally, its snow removal costs are almost exactly the same amount — about $6.2 million, not counting the cost of repairing potholes and other infrastructure damage. Commissioners could use the carryover money to cover most of the snow removal expenditures.
That decision will come before the commission soon enough, with planning for next year’s budget coming up.
“If we were to have another snow event like this next year, we wouldn’t have the same reserves available that we had this year,” Woods said.
Keeping road projects on schedule would be an impressive coup for a district that has been under siege since the first big snow storm clogged Ada County roads in December.
Frustrated by difficult driving conditions, residents lit up phone lines at the district as well as the cities they live in.
In an effort to maximize use of its plows, the district prioritized snow removal to make sure major roads and school routes were cleared first. Initially, it didn’t anticipate plowing neighborhood roads. But after residents angrily demanded a better response, plows began working their ways down smaller side streets.
ACHD has used more than 1.1 million gallons of de-icing chemical, 3,460 tons of salt and 20,000 tons of sand on roads this winter.
That delay in reaching neighborhoods shows a failure of policy, said Boise Mayor David Bieter, a frequent critic of the highway district. Yes, this winter was extreme, Bieter said, but the agency that manages streets should be prepared for the worst.
“By any measure, it was a very substandard response,” Bieter said Monday. “And what’s clear is it’s not a sufficient plan. We’ve got to do arterials and residential streets. There were some people that couldn’t get out. It’s just that simple.”
Bieter said the highway district should have had plans in place to respond to events such as this winter’s unusual snowfall. He pointed to Spokane, Wash., a city of similar size to Boise.
Bieter said he recently discussed snow removal with Spokane Mayor David Condon, who told him the city’s street department has a plan that triggers ascending levels of response as snow accumulation rises. That city’s goal is to plow every road within a few days of a storm.
Even with record snowfall this year, Bieter said, Spokane fell behind its plowing schedule by only a few hours. Efforts to confirm the details and cost of Spokane’s snow-removal program were unsuccessful.
Unlike Spokane, Boise doesn’t have a street department.
Instead, the highway district controls, builds, improves and maintains public roads throughout the county. This has been a burr under Bieter’s saddle for years.
The mayor believes his city should control its own roads. He’s said so for years, repeatedly calling the highway district a failed model. Dissolving the highway district, whose creation voters approved in 1971, would require a countywide vote.
Bieter said this winter is more evidence that Boise should manage its own roads.
He thinks the city would do a better job of snow removal than the highway district has. Because it has more responsibilities, he said, the city is better prepared to ramp up responses to all kinds of incidents.
Each new event in Boise, whether it’s a fire or other emergency, triggers a chain of command, Bieter said, and each department knows its duties.
In a snow emergency, the parks and fire departments might use their trucks and other equipment to augment a street department’s plowing efforts, and police officers might assign officers to shovel sidewalks and generally help people cope.
“We have more resources, frankly — a broader form of government. And because of that, we’re more prepared for these kinds of things,” Bieter said. “When you have an airport and a public works department and a police department and a fire department, you train and think about a whole lot of stuff. It doesn’t mean that we couldn’t get caught off guard, too.”
Woods acknowledged the public’s frustration with the highway district’s snow removal efforts, but said that preparing for extreme winters isn’t as easy as it sounds. Simply buying more equipment could prove to be an inefficient use of taxpayer money.
He said the district is working to fix some basic issues such as communication. Internally, communication was effective, according to a recent highway district report on the snow season. But confusion arose externally after cities like Boise and Meridian declared emergencies to relax their own spending restrictions, and some residents were confused about whom to contact about snow problems, Woods said.
“When you had those (emergency) declarations, and then various hotlines were set up in trying to respond to citizen communications, it sort of made communication harder,” he said. “Because, rather than the highway district getting the bulk of the calls, police were getting some ... Ada County dispatch was getting some.”
Policy changes are on the table, too, Woods said. District staff put together a report on the snow season that offers potential improvements for future winters. Those measures include mounting plows on more highway district trucks to increase the total number of plows available and enlisting landscaping teams from homeowner associations to “immediately focus on neighborhoods.”
Woods said staffers also are working on estimates of how much equipment, money, space and other resources the district would need to plow roads within 24, 48 or 72 hours after a major snow storm.
Another possibility is expanding relationships with private snow plow contractors so that it could hire them quickly and reliably whenever severe events occur.
Woods said the district will hold more meetings, internally and with other governments, in search of ways to improve snow removal.
HOUSE BILL 251
The highway district’s changes are unlikely to satisfy Bieter. He pointed out that, even in winters that are closer to normal than this one, the district sometimes has left snow on residential roads until it melts.
Furthermore, Bieter suspects the district is trying to free itself entirely of responsibility for snow removal.
Early this month, House Bill 251 appeared before the Idaho House of Representatives. It sought to remove examples of responsibilities from the definition of “maintenance” in the section of state law that governs highway districts. “Snow removal” is one of those examples.
This is not an attempt to get out of snow removal or anything like that. I can assure you of that. ACHD Commission President Paul Woods on House Bill 251
The bill’s original statement of purpose listed Steve Price, the highway district’s attorney, as a contact. Price and a district lobbyist spoke Friday at a committee hearing on the bill, but both spoke neutrally on its details and anticipated effect. Thomas Loertscher, R-Iona, is now listed as the contact for House Bill 251.
Bieter thinks Ada County Highway District was behind House Bill 251. Woods said that’s not true. A Statesman public records request turned up no written communication since Dec. 1 between Loertscher and anyone at Ada County Highway District.
“The commission is the one that gives direction to our staff and our lobbyists as to what legislation we either support or introduce,” Woods said. “I don’t know why Steve’s name was on there when it first came out, but that is definitely not our bill.”
It’s to make it at least voluntary that they do any plowing at all. Boise Mayor David Bieter on House Bill 251
Bieter also thinks the bill was a response to an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office that highway districts, not landowners, are responsible for removing snow from sidewalks as well as streets. Bieter said he doesn’t expect highway districts to start shoveling snow from people’s and businesses’ sidewalks.
“Still, it’s another whole thing to say you have no duty at all to plow snow,” he said.
The highway district disagrees with the Attorney General’s Office, calling the opinion “palpably absurd” in its analysis of state law.
Woods hosted a meeting Tuesday to put to rest similar concerns voiced by representatives of the various governments throughout Ada County. He said the consensus from the meeting was that landowners would continue to be responsible for sidewalk snow removal.
In no way is the district trying to get out of plowing streets, though, he said.
“If we didn’t do snow removal, we would be crucified,” he said. “Take this last winter as exhibit A.”
House Bill 251 has been pulled off the legislative calendar and likely will not come up again this year.
ACHD has primary responsibility for plowing public roads. The district expected to spend about $2 million on snow removal this year — a target quickly discarded when snow started falling. Here’s how much it and other local governments have spent so far:
ACHD: $6.2 million
City of Boise: $345,000
City of Meridian: $77,154*
Boise School District: $179,125
West Ada School District: $239,000**
Nampa School District: $15,000
Caldwell School District: $70,000***
*Not counting employee overtime pay **As of Jan. 13 ***As of early January