Missoula Public Works presents plan for residential plowing, street maintenance

Snow may be the last thing on the minds of Missoula residents, but city officials are using the warmer weather to focus on the winter months, and ways to get ahead of plowing snow on residential streets.

Public Works managers last week presented the City Council’s budget committee with plans to hire four full-time employees next fiscal year. The new hires would conduct street maintenance in the summer and plow residential streets in the winter.l

Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works, believes the new approach would help address residential complaints in the winter while helping the city catch up on deferred street maintenance in the summer.

“They’d be dedicated to plowing those residential streets and not the primaries,” Keene told the Missoula Current this week. “What happens to us is that we go through our priority (route) list and we get most of the way through that list and then it snows again and we’re right back at the top. You never get to the residential.”

The department’s new plan, which has the support of Missoula Mayor John Engen, would see it purchase three pickup trucks with front-mounted plows. The city already has one such plow and the four new employees would tend to residential streets after a snowfall.

That could help prevent the accumulation of snow that turns to compacted ice and leaves deep ruts for the duration of the season. Such conditions have led to widespread complaints in recent years.

The City Council will consider the department’s funding request as the budgeting process plays out.

“The thinking is, if we can get into the residential areas quicker before everything compacts, we can avoid a lot of that,” said Keene. “Once those ruts form, you can’t hit them with a plow. You have to go in with a grader, and we don’t have very many graders.”

A citizen survey conducted by the city last year identified three leading concerns, including housing, taxes and streets. Streets ranked among the lowest categories in public satisfaction, with concerns ranging from snow plowing to asphalt conditions.

The new plan at Public Works would address both, starting with deferred maintenance.

“We’ve got to do better on our deferred maintenance on the streets in the summertime. That’s getting the crack seals and chip seals done and the pavement overlays,” Keene said. “These are things that could save us a lot of money in terms of not having to reconstruct a street.

“When we looked at our staffing levels for that, it became pretty clear that we needed to add some additional summertime staff. The added bonus was, if we hired them full time and not just seasonally, we’d have more staff to do the wintertime activities.”

City taxes represent roughly 30 percent of a property owner’s tax bill. Of that, roughly 10.5 percent goes to public works while 27 percent goes to police and 23.6 percent to fire.

Public works is seeking a 13 percent budgetary increase next fiscal year, with roughly $550,000 earmarked for the four new employees and the cost of materials. The three new vehicles would be covered by a separate fund and paid for over three years.

“We think it will dramatically increase our response time,” Keene said. “I think everybody is interested to see if we can do better with plowing. Even in the time I’ve been here, it’s one of the top questions and comments that I get – the condition of the street. It’s a thing that impacts a lot of people.”

While Public Works eyes a faster response after it snows and turns its attention to street maintenance during the summer, it’s also conducting a pavement condition study across the greater metro area.

The results of the study could inform future staffing levels.

“When we get our pavement study done, we’ll have a much more detailed understanding of how much maintenance we need to do and where our staffing level needs to be,” Keene said. “Most communities will pick a target index they want to hit, and we can identify how much funding it would take to get there.”

Data collection begins in August and the results are expected this fall.