ITHACA, N.Y. — Hardy Ithacans are by now well-prepared for snow: they have pulled out heavy coats, outfitted their cars with winter tires and put waterproof boots by the door. But the city agency responsible for clearing snow from roads is far less ready, hamstrung by a shortage of plow drivers that could mean more dangerous roads this winter.
Ideally, 18 snow plow drivers would be ready to hit the streets during the season’s first blizzard, said Michael J. Thorne, who leads the city’s Department of Public Works. But one-third of those positions are vacant, he said, in part because the city’s wages don’t stack up with those of neighboring towns.
“This is where residents are really going to start seeing an impact,” Thorne told The Voice in an interview. “Services are going to take longer or not be as good as they used to be.”
The 12 snow plow drivers who remain on staff are ready to take on the challenge, Thorne said, but Ithacans are likely to see snowier roads, particularly on side streets that are less of a priority than major thoroughfares.
The shortage of snow plow drivers is the worst that Thorne has seen in his nine years as head of the agency, and he said it is largely because drivers are leaving for other jobs or even getting poached by nearby municipalities that can offer more money to clear their streets instead.
It is a problem that does not seem likely to abate any time soon.
The union representing plow drivers and other DPW employees have been working without a contract for nearly two years, and negotiations over a new contract are at a “standstill” after City Attorney Ari Lavine stepped down from his role of negotiator after facing intense public criticism from union members. The city on Wednesday allocated $60,000 to hire an outside lawyer to handle negotiations but has not yet selected anyone, essentially delaying the bargaining process.
A spokesman for the DPW employees’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, said that they hoped to be back at the negotiating table in early January.
“The issue of the plow driver shortage is the direct result of non-competitive salaries,” the union spokesman, Nicholas Newcomb, said in a statement. He added that the shortage “presents a number of safety concerns for the community.”
“We hope the city will understand the importance of coming to a fair contract for the good of Ithaca and the public workers that keep it running,” Newcomb said.
Mayor-elect Laura Lewis said that the long stretch without reaching a contract with union workers was not unique to Ithaca or the DPW and that she hoped the negotiations can move quickly once the new lawyer is selected.
“Every season has its challenges — we have floods in the summer or in the spring — but yes, there’s an urgency to reach agreements and yes, winter is coming,” Lewis said. “Hopefully the negotiations will prove to be productive and result in the most fair agreement for our city workers.”
Less than two inches of snow have fallen on Ithaca so far this winter, according to Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center, but some is expected on Sunday morning and the city usually sees about 64 inches — a bit over 5 feet — each winter, putting it among some of the snowier U.S. cities.
Eric Lerner, the chair of the city’s Mobility, Accessibility and Transportation Commission, is part of a coalition focused on removing snow from crosswalks and pedestrian areas and said the shortages only further showed the need for the city to allocate some snow removal services to outside contractors. He has been pushing the city for years to learn from Syracuse and Rochester and pay contractors after a heavy snowstorm to remove snow from sidewalks, street corners and the edges of crosswalks, where it often piles up along with slush and ice.
“Even if they didn’t have staff shortages, that wouldn’t solve the problem,” Lerner said. “What’s needed here is something different, and that is, DPW needs to buy the idea that it’s important to clear walkways for pedestrians.”
Thorne, the head of DPW, said plow drivers would spend this winter focusing on important routes like the roads toward Cayuga Medical Center and streets frequently traveled by emergency vehicles. He said the city does a good job of plowing snow but that it would only become more difficult to keep up if the agency continues to offer less money than most neighboring employers.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “If we have a bad storm, a lot of people put in extra time to keep the streets as clear as possible. When we have a limited number, we do the best that we can with what we have.”