By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — The city's response to the weekend snowfall earned low marks from several residents, including a few who personally called council members and Mayor Paul Dyster to vent their frustrations.
After a significant snowfall overnight Saturday, homeowners, especially those living on secondary and side streets, found traveling difficult to near impossible in some neighborhoods.
After fielding complaints directly by phone and indirectly from people who posted criticisms on social media outlets like Facebook, Councilwoman Kristin Grandinetti on Monday called on Dyster's administration to hold a presentation at the next council meeting to discuss the city's snow response, or the lack thereof.
"I have to say (Sunday) I got more feedback than I got on any other issue before," Grandinetti said. "It was LaSalle. It was DeVeaux. It was in the city. It was everywhere. People were angry."
Niagara Falls Public Works Director Dave Kinney said that while he understands people's frustrations, his department did the best it could to stay on top of the white stuff while dealing with a set amount of available equipment and manpower as well as a rapidly dwindling overtime budget.
"It's a guessing game as to where and when you do it," Kinney said. "I'm never going to be able to please everybody all the time. It's just not going to happen. I made an educated guess where we could start out and get the most bang for our dollars. I work with what I have and I do the best job I can."
Grandinetti said she'd like Kinney's department to be better prepared in the event the city gets hit with another significant snowfall before the end of the year. In a emailed request for a meeting with council, she described the DPW's response over the weekend as "unacceptable," adding that she felt the administration owed residents an apology for not being better prepared.
"This wasn't the surprise October storm here. Why weren't we ready?," she said.
Dyster said the administration is open to discussing removal plans moving forward, admitting it was "very unfortunate" that residents in some areas of the city were inconvenienced.
"It's obviously not what we wanted to happen," the mayor said.
Both Dyster and Kinney said a number of factors impacted snow removal efforts this past weekend, including the availability of equipment and manpower. Both city officials noted that the city is divided into 16 specific snowplowing "zones." Ideally, they said, the DPW would have two pieces of equipment operating at all times in each zone for a total of 32 on the job during significant snowfalls.
Kinney said his department currently has 22 total pieces of equipment at its disposal.
Equipment operators are another matter. The city is obligated to provide plow drivers with eight hours off for every 16 hours worked. As a result, both Kinney and Dyster said operators are not always available to meet the city's snow removal needs.
During heavy weekend snowfalls — as was the case overnight Saturday — Kinney and Dyster said it is often more difficult to field enough operators to ensure optimum equipment use.
"You want your maximum resources out just after the peak of the storm," Dyster said. "That's a judgment call when trying to decide when to do that."
Complicating matters this year is an overtime budget in the DPW that has been stretched extremely thin, according to both Dyster and Kinney.
Kinney said his department started 2013 without four temporary drivers he has used in the past to supplement city crews. Without them, he said, he was forced to pay his regular drivers more overtime than in previous years during the months of January, February and March.
As a result, Kinney said, the department is now faced with a dilemma of not having enough OT dollars left to pay drivers who work extra or not having enough plows on the roads to satisfy residents' needs.
Dyster said he may ask city lawmakers to approve additional dollars to ensure Kinney's department has sufficient overtime dollars to meet its needs in the event another winter storm hits before the end of the year. That could occur in advance of Monday's council meeting.
"We're pretty well depleted on overtime," Dyster said.
Once Jan. 1 arrives, both Dyster and Kinney said the department will have additional OT funds available and temporary drivers at its disposal.
Without more money available, Kinney said his department will find itself "in the red" before the end of the year, especially if another significant snowfall occurs.
"If we do get his with another storm, what am I going to do?" he said. "I'm going to go out and plow. That's what I'm going to do. I am going to plow to the best of my ability."