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Harsh Winter Drains Resources in Eastern Iowa

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - This seemingly endless winter will prove to be the costliest in years for some communities in Eastern Iowa.

While storms have been fairly small, the amount of snow and the extreme cold have brought added expenses, and forced communities to look for ways to stretch resources and manage the overtime that's been piling up.

"Whether you have 3 inches of snow or if you have 7 inches, there is very little difference in cost for us," said Craig Hanson, the city of Cedar Rapids maintenance manager.

Overtime and supplies are driving the spending, demand is increasing salt prices and springtime cleaning up, fixing pot holes and repairing equipment should keep the burden of winter going for some time.

That doesn't include costs to repair the water main breaks that occurred in many areas this year.

Thus far this winter, Cedar Rapids, for example, has used 11,300 tons of salt, 8,000 tons of sand and 5,600 hours of overtime to cover 36 winter "events" that brought 42 inches of snow. The cost, at just shy of $3 million, is a 58 percent spike from the $1.9 million spent last season and is the most expensive winter since the $3 million spent in 2008-2009.

North Liberty has nearly doubled its spending from $31,000 on supplies and staffing to an estimated $60,000 so far this winter, according to Don Colony, streets superintendent. It's the most the city has ever spent on winter, he said.

Colony said the city controls costs by waiting until a storm ends to execute the bulk of plowing, and they decrease chemical applications to streets as residents acclimate to winter driving.

"We have storms that last 12 to 14 hours," Colony said. "Our first attack is to make roads passable, but we are not going to put down a whole lot of chemicals only to plow it off in a few hours."

It's a similar story in Iowa City.

Spending on supplies, equipment and overtime is up to $596,334, well above the $485,000 spent in 2012-2013 and $285,000 spent in 2011-2012.That's the most Iowa City has spent on winter since 2008-2009, when high salt prices drove up the total cost to $695,500, said Rick Fosse, director of Iowa City public works.

Snow plow drivers have put in 2,512 of regular time, and an additional 2,338 hours in overtime. The city has contracted out $31,693 to haul away snow.

"I give a lot of credit to snow plow drivers," Fosse said. "It's been a lot of evenings and weekends, and sometimes 16 hours at a time of very focused work."

The demand of winter has forced tough choices.

Cedar Rapids has not cleared residential streets to the normal standard, for example, as workers must focus on main roads, Hanson said.

Other cities are stretching supplies of salt, which is applied to streets to melt ice, to avoid paying soaring prices to order more. Salt sells for up to $160 per ton right now, well above the $65 per ton range cities paid at the start of the season, Hanson and Fosse said.

Iowa City has gone through about 3,000 tons of salt, and is conserving the remaining 290 tons by using less in a salt-sand mix, Fosse said.

Iowa City is using a 20 percent salt-80 percent sand blend, which is less than optimal, Fosse said.

Linn County is stretching salt at a 6- or 7-to-1, salt-to-sand ratio, county engineer Steve Gannon noted. By comparison, Cedar Rapids uses a 1-to-1 ratio and dipped to one part salt to two parts sand during the most treacherous part of this winter.

Even as winter winds down, these officials are eyeing mounds of work to come.

Hanson in Cedar Rapids expects to collect some 8,000 tons of sand off the streets to protect the storm water system and keep the roads safe for travelers. Crews likely won't get to residential areas until late May or June, he said.

And, the harsh winter will lead to a "bumper crop" of potholes, frost boils and frost heaves, Fosse said.

"The worse the winter, the worse the damage," Hanson added.

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