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June 2012
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SNOW DAZE City has priorities wrong wringing hands over salt

We will grant the city sometimes gets a bad rap when weather conspires against it. We can think of several times over the years when ice followed by snow followed by extended sub-freezing temperatures have left side roads treacherous for days or even weeks and City Hall took a PR beating despite having no real options.

But the weather events of the past week and the decisions by the city relating to it present a little different twist we think. It all centers, really, on a decision by the city prior to the last storm to try to preserve salt by treating only main roads in the city.

City Engineer Rick Murphy told the city commission on the day of last week's ice storm that out of 500 tons of salt purchased by the city for the season, only 250 to 300 tons remain. He said it takes 75 to 100 tons to treat the city's main roads and that the plan is to only treat those roads for the rest of the season and clear secondary roads when conditions allow.

We will also grant that there was some question as to whether using salt was advisable in the rain-to-ice scenario that unfolded last week. There is always some question as the whether the salt will wash off the roads prior to the freeze and be ineffective. But the state went ahead with salting efforts, with considerable success, and city roads that were salted are likewise now clear.

So the question to us becomes one of priorities. For a local government, there is nothing more fundamental in terms of responsibilities than maintaining streets and roads, keeping them safe and passable for the city's residents. So with roughly half the city's salt supply used for the year, why hold the rest in reserve?

First, it's February. We're a southern border state. How many more major snowfalls are we really at risk for this year?

Second, that shouldn't really matter. Salt has been obtainable, although the state announced Friday that supplies are now getting tight. So why didn't the city just restock in order to meet this core responsibility?

Let's put this in context. Last year the city commission approved spending $435,000 to build an unbudgeted and controversial underpass for its Greenway Trail. Critics thought it extravagant and unnecessary. The city is also more than $1 million over budget on the now-notorious "bump-out" for its riverfront development project and apparently stands ready to spend an additional $800,000 of unbudgeted money to complete that structure.

But city officials decide they don't have the money to salt the city's side roads prior to an ice storm because it's February and the salt supply is half gone? That just doesn't make sense to us.

It doesn't help that the city and much of the rest of government shuts down at the drop of a hat where winter weather is concerned. The day after the ice storm banks opened, ambulances ran, newspapers were delivered, and most people went to work. But government by and large took a paid holiday.

That habit plus impassable residential streets and city schools closed all week have the city taking a pretty good beating on social media sites and in general conversation. We think that has been earned.

There is an election coming up in a few months. We think if recent events lead to a healthy discussion during the campaigns of what the city's priorities have been and need to be, it would be good for all concerned.

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