Exemplifying public service

By Colleen Johnson January 12, 2009 02:43 pm

What a wild and wacky winter it’s been so far!

As The Observer recently pointed out, this past December was colder than normal and precipitation was higher than normal. And the snow and cold temperatures didn’t stop with Dec. 31. As the new year rolled in, we saw temperatures drop to a low of minus-4 on Jan. 4 and snow or rain fell on four of the first seven days of the New Year.

Through all of that cold and snow, the City of La Grande’s Public Works Department has persevered. They have logged more than 680 hours of overtime with 1,900 total man-hours worked. Over this period of time, Public Works has had 18 employees in the field and six in the office answering phones and providing support for the field workers.

The city has used 23 different pieces of equipment, almost continuously. City staff worked continuously from Dec. 13 through Jan. 7, including Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, clearing snow, sanding roads and just plain trying to get a handle on the situation.

Needless to say, all of this greatly impacts the Public Works budget. The city routinely has allocated $40,000 a year for snow removal. At the beginning of this year we had $137,000 in the street contingency fund. As of Jan. 6, the city has already spent $124,637 for snow removal and related work. And it’s only early January. We still have a month and a half where we can receive significant snowfall. And none of this counts the added problems of possible flooding given the warming temperatures!

Given the strain on the street budget this winter, we can anticipate considerably less funding for summer road maintenance — patching, sweeping, etc.

And it’s not just the Public Works staff who confronted these circumstances. Our fire department recently had 22 firefighters battle a two-story house fire with temperatures in the low 20s and winds gusting up to 42 mph. By the time the fire was put out, there was a thick coat of ice covering the entire scene, including the firefighters and their gear. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the house and its contents were a total loss.

Our police department has also been working on keeping things under control and has added to their regular duties trying to remind citizens that it’s their responsibility to clear the sidewalks in front of their houses.

While it’s still early in the winter and we can anticipate more weather-related problems, we owe these dedicated public employees our thanks and appreciation for doing a great job. They are out in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures while many of us are tucked away warm in our houses. In a time when people have become cynical about government, our city employees show what it truly means to call someone a public servant.

Colleen Johnson is mayor of La Grande.