It does not matter when snow begins to fall, how hard the wind blows or how thickly the ice forms on the streets of Mitchell.
Regardless of what lands on the ground in the winter or how much, the city of Mitchell's snow removal crew is tasked to plow through it all.
It is a demanding job that comes with plenty of challenges and public scrutiny. When roads aren't plowed to residents' standards, Public Works Director Kyle Croce is often the first city official to receive the complaints. Considering the challenges that the snow removal crew are up against, Croce said he hopes to continue educating the public on the factors that impact the snow removal process.
"Our crew have to be ready for removing snow at all times, and it can require having to get out on the streets in the middle of blizzard-like weather as early as 4 a.m.," Croce said. "There are a lot of variables that factor into the process, and we want to continue explaining how many challenges come with it. Trying to clear all of the streets after 12 inches of snow, and sustained 40 mph winds is a tough task."
Street and Sanitation Supervisor Kevin Roth says the team of 12 snow removal crew members knows what they are up against with each winter storm that parades through town.
“It’s a very time-consuming process that comes with unpredictable elements, and we have a dedicated crew who has seen a lot of snow the past year.” Roth said of the snow removal crew.
In the calendar year 2019, Mitchell received 69.7 inches of snow, the most in any single year in the decade of 2010s, according to National Weather Service records. It was only rivaled by the 69.4 inches of snow that fell in 2018, nearly doubling the recent average for a single year. In the years of 2010 to 2017, Mitchell received an average of 36.3 inches of snow.
Once a winter storm accumulates at least 2 inches of snowfall, Mitchell's snow removal crew begins plowing the emergency routes, which are designated streets that are widely-traveled and must remain cleared for public safety needs. Following the emergency routes, the crew clears the priority routes, which are considered streets that are heavily traveled with access to schools, bus routes and public facilities. (A map of the emergency routes and priority routes can be found on the city of Mitchell’s website.)
Public Works Director Kyle Croce said the amount of snow that falls over the time period of a winter storm event, paired with how long the storm lasts, can dictate how quickly the snow removal process will go.
“Those routes are actually maintained during the storm, so our street crews are out there when it’s really happening,” Croce said of the emergency and priority snow routes.
In 2019, for example, the average labor costs -- overtime included -- for District A alone was upwards of $10,000, Croce said. District A consists of the downtown and Main Street areas of Mitchell, which stretches northward from East Railroad Street near The Depot Pub and Grill to the intersection adjacent of Northside Sinclair on North Main Street. Portions of East and West streets in between North Duff and North Kimball streets are also included in District A’s snow removal route.
“We communicate with the businesses in District A during snow events, which helps us coordinate a good timeframe for us to begin removing snow in that route,” Croce said, noting the crew typically clears the snow at night, when there's little traffic.
The snow removal costs for the city came in at $84,331.74 in 2019, roughly $8,000 under the $92,021 budgeted amount, according to figures provided by the city of Mitchell. That figure consists of snow removal supplies, materials and equipment purchases only, excluding labor costs. For 2020, the city has $81,100 budgeted for the snow removal supplies and equipment.
According to Roth, the snow removal crew begins plowing the remaining east to west and north to south street routes and District A once the emergency and priority routes are cleared and bulk of the snowfall ends. In the event an emergency takes place in an area that is not located on an emergency route, the city has a designated staff member who will clear snow for the incident. During the Dec. 28-29 winter storm — which had 15 inches of snow fall in Mitchell — Roth said they had to put that practice into play after an emergency at an apartment complex took place.
“Sometimes the snow and blizzards may last two days, and the crews will continuously have to work on keeping the emergency and priority routes clear before we can get to all the routes,” Roth said. “Crews are sometimes collectively working 24 hours straight, but they can only run so long since they’re all CDL drivers.”
Each of the city snow removal drivers carries a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), which means they must abide by state and federal DOT regulations. According to the regulations for CDL operators, each duty period has a maximum time limit of 14 hours. The rule allows a CDL operator to drive up to 11 hours during the 14-hour time span. In addition, a snowplow operator must take a 30 minute break after 8 hours of driving during the 14-hour rule.
“One of the biggest things we have on our minds is making sure our drivers have the rest they need to continue,” Croce said.
To maximize the amount of time the snow removal crew can operate, Roth coordinates the schedules and routes. During the recent Dec. 28-29 weekend winter storm, Roth said the workload was divided into three separate shifts for a consecutive 24 hours. The snow Mitchell received from the late December storm required the city to contract four additional side-dump trailers, which are used to haul the snow from areas in the city to a designated area next to the Foster Street bridge. There, the city dumps the snow piles, side-by-side during and after the storm.
“The crew came in at 4 a.m. and wrapped up around 6 p.m., which was just for the east to west and north to south street routes,” Roth said, noting the proper hours of break time was factored into the 14-hour shifts. “Every piece of equipment we had was out on the roads.”
For the east-west and north-south streets, there are a total of five snow removal routes that are divided among five separate snow plow teams. Roth said 6 inches of snow accumulation, depending on the consistency of the snow, takes about 11 hours to complete, including the emergency and priority routes, and the east-west and north-south streets.
In between clearing the routes, there are payloaders scattered throughout the city limits removing snow from cul-de-sacs, parking lots and other areas that are challenging for the city’s snow plow vehicles to reach. Areas along Lake Mitchell and Wild Oak Golf Course are some of the most challenging areas the city tends to during the snow removal process, Roth said, because those areas tend to drift.
“We always want to be curb to curb, but with really wet snow, ice underneath and heavy drifts that come near the curb edges, the snow plow trucks can’t move it any further at times,” Roth said.
From drivers failing to move their vehicles parked along the street of emergency routes, to private snow removal companies dumping snow in a prohibited area, Roth said city crews come up against plenty of challenges during the snow removal process.
“There are times when snow is placed where it shouldn’t be and some of the boulevards are full before the plow trucks even get by,” Roth said. “Regardless of the challenges, our team is very passionate about performing their job roles to the best of their ability.”