Ada County Highway District has hired 12 private contractors with road graders this year to clear snow from the streets.
But the district contacted every snow removal operator in the Treasure Valley with an interest in hiring them, spokeswoman Nicole DuBois said in an email Friday. DuBois and other district representatives say almost every contractor already was working for someone else.
This strain on resources highlights the snow-removal conundrum the highway district faces. Winters like this one come along only every few decades. When they do, the district needs help to supplement its own snow-removal fleet.
But that’s exactly when businesses all over the county are screaming for help, too — and are willing to pay for it.
So what should the district do? The simplest option is to expand its fleet. It could buy, say, 20 more snowplow trucks, bringing its total to 57. That would certainly help clear snow, even in moderate snow years, quickly from all roads, not just the arterials and collectors.
But such an expansion also would cost millions of dollars upfront and, potentially, hundreds of thousands more for drivers, repairs and maintenance. Is that the wisest use of taxpayer money?
More to the point, would taxpayers be willing to pay more money or compromise road maintenance and improvements to pay for this bigger fleet? I doubt it.
“If we would have had the equipment purchased and the staff to handle a storm like this year for the last 29 years, you guys would have been doing the story about how we’ve got all this equipment sitting in the yard and it’s not doing anything,” said Paul Woods, who was sworn in as president of the district’s governing body Wednesday as complaints about ACHD’s response to the snow were reaching a fever pitch.
What are some other options? It’s clear this winter has exasperated Ada County residents, but those same residents might be just as angry if their hard-earned dollars pay for equipment that’s only necessary every few decades.
Could the district develop a flexible snow-removal policy that doesn’t cost too much in normal or mild winters, but ensures an adequate response, bolstered by private contractors, to extraordinary winters like this one?
In fact, there is a way, and the district is already dabbling in it. Woods said the district has paid fees — something like a retainer — to private contractors to make sure the district has priority for their services if it wants them.
This type of agreement is the reason the district has been able to hire some of the contractors clearing snow from county roads right now, Woods said.
Would commissioners consider expanding this program? Woods said it’s possible.
“The way that it would really work is you would say, ‘I’m going to pay you a certain amount to be on standby and provide those resources,’” he said. “And we would pay that money whether it’s utilized or not.”
One trick to making this approach work would be to fine-tune the “retainer” fee. Pay too much, and taxpayers won’t get good value. Pay too little, and the district won’t attract enough private contractors to ensure robust snow-removal.
Private contractors are expensive, so cost is a concern whenever they are activated. But the way ACHD budgets for snow removal might fit a broader retainer-style approach.
“The level of effort that we need for snow removal is not constrained by the budget,” Woods said. “If we need to hold back on some of our capital projects or some of our maintenance projects as we come through the year because we spent more on snow removal than we planned to, we will.”
Of course, no matter what the district pays for a retainer, some people will criticize it for throwing money down the drain when those private services aren’t used.
Many more will complain if, every 30 years or so, the winter simply overwhelms the district.
Total ACHD expenditures through the years
2013 93,985, 512
Source: Ada County Highway District