Clallam County commissioners encouraged better communication among the Sheriff’s Office, Road Department and PenCom after road conditions became dangerous over the holiday weekend Jan. 15.
During budget meetings last fall, County Engineer Ross Tyler recommended eliminating weekend snow plowing in an effort to save $150,000 in overtime costs. In December 2011, the commissioners approved the measure, which saved two jobs, with the caveat that in an emergency plows could be called out.
The problem occurred when communications among the three agencies failed as vehicles spun out of control on an icy, snowy Black Diamond Road the afternoon of Jan. 15.
At the Jan. 17 commissioners’ meeting, Tyler said he wasn’t aware driving conditions on Black Diamond were dangerous until the Sheriff’s Office closed the road around 5:30 p.m.
“We must have had a communication breakdown with PenCom,” he said.
Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty said sheriff’s deputies can call and request snow plows to respond to an area they believe to be dangerous.
“A deputy can call and say, ‘I think this is an emergency,’” he said.
Doherty and Commissioner Mike Chapman sought to clarify the county’s policy after the public reacted very critically to the lack of snow plows in action over the long weekend. Commissioner Jim McEntire was unable to attend due to the snow and was unable to phone conference during the meeting because of a bad phone connection.
“Public safety trumps budgets,” Chapman said of the dilemma.
However, some people complaining about their roads not being plowed had unrealistic expectations, he said.
“If you live at a 1,600-foot elevation and you expect your road to be plowed first thing Sunday morning on a three-day weekend, that’s not realistic,” he said. “That’s a Cadillac service we can’t afford.”
On Monday, Jan. 16, road crews were out on mountain roads, such as Blue Mountain, Lost Mountain and Palo Alto roads, Tyler said.
The strategy was to get as much sand down as possible, he said.
Some rigs needed chains to get through the snow and Tuesday, as the winter storm moved in stronger, every crew member was out working to clear the roads, he said.
Port Angeles resident Andrew May, a native of Wisconsin, said good snow removal is proactive, not reactive and the county should re-examine its snow-removal policy.
“Anybody who really is in the profession knows the No. 1 imperative thing to do with snow is get it off as soon as it comes,” he said.
Chapman said the road department has lost more than 20 percent of its workforce in the past three years due to budget cuts.
“All I hear is, ‘Don’t raise taxes, balance the budget, live within your means,’” he said. “When we deliver that, we don’t have the same services.”
County Administrator Jim Jones said there is no way the county can afford to have crews out 24/7 plowing the roads.
Chapman said the loss of interest on tax revenue managed by the county has crippled the budget permanently.
The county received $2.3 million in annual interest until interest rates dropped and bank fees rose, netting the county only $30,000 a year from Treasurer’s interest.
“It’s a new reality,” Chapman said.
Choosing to mobilize the county snow crews only in emergencies on weekends was a measure taken to save jobs and balance the budget, he said.
“We’re living within our means,” he said. “This is smaller government. This is what it looks like.”
Chapman said in situations like the one on Black Diamond, where seven cars were stuck at one time after sliding in an intersection, the overtime is justified.
“I’d like to give him (Tyler) more flexibility to do his job and not worry about the budget,” he said.
The commissioners determined there should be more discussion on known problem areas so snow crews know where to watch during snow events.
“Fortunately we don’t get these types of storms very often,” Tyler said.