SCHENECTADY — State authorities are helping Schenectady dig out from a massive snowstorm.
National Guard trucks spent Wednesday collecting snow from city streets and dumping it near Fehr Avenue in Central Park, among other locations.
The fleet joined state Department of Transportation trucks deployed along Eastern Avenue tasked with transporting snow to dump sites.
The state assistance comes as the city is taking heat from residents about its handling of the biggest local snowstorm since 1993, with many faulting what they perceived to be a sluggish response, particularly on secondary streets.
Also see: Foss: Schenectady has a snow problem
Many streets remained thick with snow on Wednesday, which has since congealed into “hard pack” that will require payloaders and heavy equipment to scrape off, said Mayor Gary McCarthy.
City lawmakers acknowledged receiving a torrent of complaints.
And a consensus is emerging, say several City Council members, that the city was unprepared for a well-predicted blast that dumped nearly two feet of snow across the region.
‘LESS THAN OPTIMAL’
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo. “We live in upstate New York. What’s the problem? I just don’t understand why it’s such a challenge at this point, especially with a state of emergency.”
Perazzo acknowledged the challenges presented by a major snowstorm, but she said places like Bigelow Avenue, the site of numerous child and daycare programs, hadn’t been plowed at all until Wednesday morning.
“Many people delivering children there don’t even have a car,” she said.
Perazzo also wondered why the city sent out Stockade-centric robocalls urging residents to move their cars to residents citywide, and questioned reports on workers declining overtime.
McCarthy declared a state of emergency on Monday, echoing an order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that unlocked state assistance.
The mayor acknowledged the city’s response was “less than optimal,” a measure he attributed to a shortage of plow drivers who refused to work overtime.
McCarthy on Wednesday said some workers “declined” overtime because they did not want to work double shifts.
“Generally, people declined,” he said. “All in all, staff is doing a damn good job.”
The mayor also cited state restrictions that cap the time period CDL drivers can drive without taking a break at 12 hours.
Councilman Vince Riggi said the city has a “major labor-management problem.”
“That's what's at the crux of this,” he said. "I was told guys have been waiting for just the right moment to stick it to their boss, and that's what's happening. I don't blame the workers — this is all on the administration.”
“Personally, I think it’s a morale issue,” she said. “That is not something we’ve experienced in past years.”
McCarthy called morale issues a “red herring” and said Perazzo’s comments were “over-simplified.”
“People were out,” he said. “It’s a record-breaking storm.”
Not all council members blamed City Hall.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Councilman John Mootooveren said illegally-parked cars were a prime culprit in hampering snow-clearing efforts.
"The main reason streets were not plowed was cars on either side and plows could not get down the streets,” he said.
Mootooveren didn't hear firsthand about any union complaints, but hopes any outstanding issues can be resolved.
"At the end of the day, the city residents need their service,” he said.
AFSCME Local 1037 covers employees in the city’s Bureau of Services Department.
President James Clay didn’t return a request for comment on Wednesday.
But Clay and several union members excoriated officials at a public hearing for the 2020 city budget earlier this fall, citing complaints over low pay, working in bad weather and what they perceived to be a lack of safety training.
“Why is it so hard to get employees extra money when it’s deserved?” Clay asked.
Perazzo stopped short of calling for a review of the city’s snow-removal policies, but said the city needs to explore manpower and staffing issues.
“That needs to be hit head-on,” she said. “That needs to be fixed and what do we do to fix it?”
Mootooveren demurred on whether the City Council should probe further.
"It's more of an administrative function,” he said. “Maybe what we can do as a [City] Council is allocate more money. If this happens in the future, we can hire additional contractors to help us in these situations."
The city already uses additional contractors, said Commissioner of General Services Paul Lafond, and typically announces bids for the service annually.
This year, one contractor applied, Lafond said. But the outfit the city historically used was busy owing to other contracts, Lafond said.
The city currently uses Altamont-based Carver Construction and one other provider, he said.
City Council President Ed Kosiur didn’t return a request for comment.
Despite the intense focus on city efforts, some have also criticized the county’s snow-removal practice downtown.
The county owns the parking lot behind Puzzle’s Bakery on State Street.
Ron Suriano, owner of Moisture Salon on Barrett Street, shot video of plows pushing snow from that lot into city streets and sidewalks, which is already a choke point owing to downtown office workers jostling for an increasingly shrinking number of parking spaces.
“I know the city is in chaos with the streets,” Suriano said. “But this is happening all down Barrett Street.”
The county acknowledged the possibility of snow ending up on the sidewalk.
“We are looking into the situation to see if snow removal from that lot can be improved,” said Erin Roberts, a county spokesperson.
The county held meetings before the storm to prepare its “comprehensive snow removal strategy.”
“While initial assessments indicate that the county was successful in snow and ice control of the roads it is responsible for during the recent winter storm, post-mortem meetings are still held to identify what was done well and what the county can improve upon in the future,” Roberts said.
Despite the complaints, first-responders said they haven’t run into any public safety concerns as a result of sloppy or unclear roads.
“It’s winter,” said Assistant Fire Chief Don Mareno. “We got a bunch of snow. It’s something we prepare for, we train for — our rigs are properly equipped and we haven’t had anything out of the ordinary”
Mohawk Ambulance declined comment through a public relations firm.
State crews, which began to mobilize Tuesday night, are working 24 hours a day in both Schenectady and Troy, which is receiving similar assistance.
Altogether, the state has provided 20 dump trucks and other equipment manned by personnel from six state agencies.
"We will always be there to partner with localities to meet the needs of residents and we are working with these local governments to dig out from the storm and get things back to normal,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a news release.