Every winter the wind blows off Lake Erie, dumping snow in the hills of southern Erie County and across the plains north of Buffalo, where it sits, waiting to be plowed from roads.
It may be August, but an arctic chill has settled over negotiations on how much to pay the towns to plow the roads owned by Erie County. Town highway superintendents call the increase offered by Erie County government insulting.
A county official countered that the towns remain fixated on getting too large a raise.
Motorists just hope all this gets resolved before winter, or, shudder to think, another October surprise storm.
Erie County has 1,177 miles of roads – more than some states – and plowing has been done for decades by a mix of county, town and village crews, said Timothy Callan, the county's deputy budget director.
“We don't have enough staff, plows and dump trucks to plow all of the roads we own,” he said.
The county negotiates a contract with the towns to pay them for each lane mile they plow. Some roads have two lanes and others have four or more lanes. The towns plow about half the county roads.
Town highway crews are driving their plows on county roads to get to town roads to plow, so it makes sense for them to drop the plows and push the snow back on county highways.
“We're concerned about our citizens' safety,” said Concord Supervisor Gary A. Eppolito.
But, he added, “We can't afford to subsidize Erie County.”
Erie County paid municipalities $3,393 per lane mile last winter under a three-year contract that ends this month.
The county's reimbursement increased 5 percent the past six years, said Orchard Park Highway Superintendent Fred Piasecki, president of the Erie County Highway Superintendents Association.
When highway superintendents and town supervisors first met with the county in March, they looked for another three-year contract with a 5 percent annual increases.
They thought they reached a tentative agreement, with only details to be nailed down at their next meeting.
County officials remember the meeting differently.
“Everything that these towns are saying about a tentative agreement is not factually true,” Callan said.
Erie County wanted a five-year contract with an increase of a half percent a year.
“Generally, people prefer longer contracts because it's stable and it avoids uncertainty,” Callan said.
“They were fixed on a number. There was no negotiation. They were fixed on a number. They came in and they gave me the number and that was it,” said Erie County Department of Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo.
That number started at 5 percent, but by the third meeting, the towns had come down to 4 percent, and the county had come up to 0.75 percent, representatives for the towns said.
“We were insulted,” Eppolito said.
“The prices of everything have escalated so much, primarily fuel, labor and salt and all the components,” Piasecki said.
The county also suggested the towns mow the county right of way once during the summer, but highway superintendents did not want that in the snowplowing contract.
Loffredo said the county has increased the rate paid to towns by 78 percent over 12 years, from $1,911 per lane mile to $3,393 this year. But over the same period of time, the county's operation and maintenance budget for the highway division has risen only 18 percent, Loffredo said.
So, looking at the county's proposal and what the county has spent, “who is out of the ballpark?” he asked.
“Some of these roads the county has are in pretty bad shape,” said Piasecki, who added that perhaps the operations and maintenance budget has not risen as quickly because the county has reduced road repairs.
Erie County also wants more record keeping from the towns on when and where they plow, how much salt they use and how much overtime they pay.
“We have compiled our costs,” Piasecki said. “In previous years, we have given those costs to them. We've sat down. We've always come to a fair agreement.”
But this year the highway superintendents have asked their town boards to pass resolutions calling on County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the Erie County Legislature to help resolve the issue.
Town leaders say they cannot legally plow county roads without a contract in place.
“The only way we can put plows on county roads is to declare a state of emergency,” Eppolito said.
He said Concord probably has lost about $80,000 over the past five years plowing county roads.
“We get a lot of snow here,” he said. “Most of the towns that do get a lot of snow make more than two passes a day.”
While other towns may not get as much snow, the county roads they plow may be larger, with more lanes, and more traffic. The towns take the same rate for snow removal.
Town officials want the dispute resolved soon because they are putting together their 2014 budgets, and they need to plan for costs. Most had to order salt last spring and are locked into contracts, Eppolito said.
“We're obligated to take 80 percent of that sale,” he said. “We can't eat this salt, so we need a contract.”
Town officials say it is up to county leaders to make another offer.
“These towns and their highway superintendents are depending upon the revenue from the county for their financial planning purposes, and we're counting on them to plow some of our facilities for us. So each side has a stake in this, and it's important that they come back to the table with us,” Callan said.
“The taxpayer does not care who plows their roads. They want them plowed,” Loffredo said. “And another thing: They don't want their taxes to go up, either from the towns or the county.”
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