SCHENECTADY — Two weeks after a massive winter storm brought the city to a standstill, City Council members put a top official leading the city’s snow response on the hot seat.
Lawmakers on Monday grilled Commissioner of General Services Paul Lafond on the city’s handling of the storm, which generated outrage from residents over towering snowbanks, streets left unplowed for days and residents being ticketed for failing to clear their sidewalks after the city and independent contractors dumped massive piles of snow on them.
“There were a tremendous amount of concerns and questions regarding snow removal,” said City Council President Ed Kosiur. “This is not our first snowstorm.”
Lafond defended the city’s response, chalking up snarled traffic and impassable roads to residents defying parking restrictions and a lack of empty space to deposit snow once it had been plowed.
The commissioner acknowledged the city does inevitably push snow onto sidewalks, which property owners are responsible for clearing.
“It’s common and it happens,” he said.
Property owners can provide a photo and file a complaint with the city, which will dispatch a crew to clear the obstruction, he said.
Lafond said crews were out when snow began falling on Sunday, Dec. 1, and will continue to spend late-night shifts working on removal.
He reiterated the city’s “Priority Street Plowing” program that tackles main thoroughfares throughout the city before plowing secondary streets.
And with 350 miles of roadways in the city — not including parking spaces — the sheer acreage presents a formidable challenge, he said, noting that it typically takes four passes to clear a street.
“It’s not just going up one lane and going down another,” he said.
Schenectady received 26 inches of snow in 48 hours, which shuttered the city school district for two consecutive days.
State and National Guard staff activated by a state of emergency helped truck out 1,500 loads of snow.
“We don’t physically have that many dump trucks,” Lafond said of the city’s resources.
Lawmakers, citing the ongoing torrent of criticism from their constituents, sought to determine why the Electric City was the only location in the Capital Region to be paralyzed, a region where snowstorms are a predictable part of the winter fabric.
“We have to be solution-driven and not give excuses,” said Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo. “All we’ve done is offer excuses.”
Public Safety Chairman Councilman John Mootooveeren said ticketing homeowners for failing to clear their sidewalks after the city dumped snow was nonsensical.
Roughly 150 violations have been handed out to date, he said.
“Where’s common sense when we’re going after people to clear their sidewalks, yet our streets are covered with snow?” he said.
The mayor's office clarified that number on Tuesday morning.
The city issued 17 sidewalk-related violations between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13, according to the Department of General Services, while City Police issued 150 snow-related parking tickets.
Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas said the city cannot have a repeat of the situation.
“We can’t have school closed two days in a row,” she said.
Lawmakers also questioned the effectiveness of the city’s partnership with Transfinder that tracks snowplows, because the program doesn’t include the private contractors the city uses to augment its workforce.
The city cannot compel contractors to install GPS devices, Lafond said, but it can make doing so a part of the annual bid package.
Despite their frustration, lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on how to move forward.
Mayor Gary McCarthy previously attributed a lack of manpower to his decision not to call a snow emergency, and said plow drivers declined to work overtime while other state regulations capped the hours drivers could legally work.
Lafond said adding 10 trucks to the city’s crew would cost at least $2 million, and about $600,000 to $700,000 in benefits and base salaries.
That would equate to a 3 percent tax hike in the general fund over three years, he said.
“Maybe we can amend the budget and request 12 more people,” he said.
Outgoing Councilman Vince Riggi, who leaves office next month, said the city should discuss moving up the bid schedule in order to be better prepared.
He urged lawmakers and Lafond to explore all solutions, including boosting staff if necessary.
“You have to tell us what you need to do the job properly,” Riggi told Lafond.
Councilman John Polimeni proposed a new alternate-side parking policy that would go into effect during winter months, a measure he said would help keep streets clear.
Lawmakers discussed the concept but took no action and will revisit the subject again in two weeks.
“Quite frankly, it’s going to have to be a bigger discussion as we move forward,” Polimeni said.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield cited “extremely challenging” parking scenarios on some streets in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
“I’m not sure that’s going to work citywide,” she said.
Calling a snow emergency would ultimately have the same effect because it would automatically trigger alternate-side parking, Perazzo said.
McCarthy said that while declaring a snow emergency has “inherent efficiencies” and helps synchronize responses, it doesn’t address snow-removal issues.
“The snow emergency does not get the solution we think it’s going to get,” he said.
A street-by-street analysis may be required in the future, said lawmakers, who indicated they would study policies in other upstate cities, including Albany, Rochester and Binghamton.
Kosiur called for the city to reexamine its priority streets to possibly include those around school zones.
Lawmakers grappled with answers late Monday as the city braced for another round of winter weather:
Snowfall totals could reach 6 inches in areas around Schenectady, Saratoga, Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties.
The National Weather Service issued an advisory taking effect at 1 a.m. Tuesday and running for 24 hours.
Lafond said he’s already been in contact with an independent contractor, who said they will put on three additional contractors specifically for Woodlawn beginning early Tuesday.