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Investigators: Why Spokane's full city plow takes so long

<p>It is a question many of you have asked – Why does it take Spokane so long to plow the city streets when it snows?</p>

Whitney Ward

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SPOKANE, Wash. – It is a question many of you have asked – Why does it take Spokane so long to plow the city streets when it snows?

One local family is asking that question too. They said they are having a tough time getting their daughter to her therapy appointments.

So 2 On Your Side Investigator Whitney Ward got some answers – not just for them, but for every driver in the city.

Snow Has Stopped

***

Finally, the snow has stopped – at least for now. I have not stopped asking questions though about why the City has struggled so much to plow Spokane streets.

I talked with Greg and Lynn Thomas. They said because of this snow they could not even get out of their driveway to take their daughter to her medical appointments.

“And we’re done. We call and cancel our appointments.”

***

Greg and Lynn have lived in Spokane for 43 years, and winter after winter they have struggled on the City’s unplowed streets.

Especially in this custom-built van for their daughter, Grace.

Greg and Lynn Thomas said they have to use a special van for their daughter to get her to therapy appointments. With the lack of plowing, it makes it almost impossible for them to travel.

“Our van sits about 9 inches lower than most vans, because it’s a handicap van,” Thomas said. “So, just to get through these ruts is very difficult. I get high-centered. Sometimes I can’t even turn and go straight.”

I asked them what they do in those instances.

“Many times I just come back into my driveway, and go back in the house,” Thomas said. “And we’re done. We call and cancel our appointments.”

They said this winter was especially bad.

“There’s nothing worse than a hopeless feeling of not being able to get from here to there for days!”

So, after a series of snow storms in December and January, Thomas began filing complaints with the City – asking why it was taking a week or longer for their South Hill street, just off of Bernard, to ever see a plow.

Finally, after no improvement, officials with the City offered Thomas a face-to-face meeting with Mayor David Condon. I asked to sit in on that meeting, but was turned down.

“They said that its budget,” Thomas said when I asked what they told him. “Always about money. About plows, not enough plows.”

Thomas said the City told him when they plow the streets and when they clean the streets in the spring and fall, the money to pay for it is coming from the same budget.

“So my suggestion would be, I’d rather have a dirty street, than a street I can’t drive on for three months out of the year.”

Thomas said he did mention the idea to the mayor and his reaction was sympathetic.

Did the mayor offer any kind of solutions at that meeting?

“No,” Thomas replied.

The City has long insisted it is doing the best it can with what it has. Currently, officials said they can complete a full city plow within about four days. However, in the case of our most recent storm earlier in February – it took a full week.

We compared that response time to cities of comparable size, just to see how we stack up. We were surprised to find all three similar cities said their full city plow only took 24 hours.

“Looking for ways to improve.”

***

I spoke with the communications director for the City of Spokane, Brian Coddington. I asked him your concerns. Why Spokane cannot plow in 24 hours like the similar cities we found?

“It’d be interesting to talk to them [Green Bay city officials] personally,” Coddington said. “I’m not sure what they consider a full city plow, if that’s going through one time, or maybe there’s a different philosophy or approach. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Coddington said the City also questioned if those similar cities are really that similar when it comes to median income. Coddington said that is a big portion of the city’s tax revenue which then determines the budget for things like snow removal.

I had hoped to ask Mayor Condon these questions directly. As he was not available, I asked Coddington, where does the mayor stand on this issue? Also important, does he understand that people are very frustrated about how long it takes to plow the streets?

“He’s heard the feedback, and he’s going to be leading the discussion on the operational considerations, and see where we can improve,” Coddington said.

So, I looked at the most recent U.S. Census data which shows three of the similar-sized cities do have a higher median income than Spokane.

Green Bay, Wisconsin, however, was almost exactly the same -- $42,400 for Spokane to $42,800 for Green Bay.

Spokane and Green Bay have nearly identicial median incomes.

When we asked city leaders there, we learned Green Bay does not even have a snow removal budget. They just pay for it as needed, out of the general city fund. Green Bay also has more pieces of plowing equipment than Spokane, yet fewer miles of city streets – still, all are plowed in less than 24 hours.

I asked Coddington, if Green Bay can do it, why can Spokane not do it, in less than 24 hours?

“Again, I’m not familiar with what the practice is there, and what their definition is of a city plow, in order to give you a good honest answer,” he said.

Is it safe to say then that the mayor is willing to make some changes – based on this winter we had – and the frustrations that we had?

“Yeah he’s absolutely going to be a part of that process, sitting down and taking a look at the operational and communication challenges that we had this year, and looking for ways to improve.”

I took that same question to City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. Each year, Council members help structure the year’s operating budget that is proposed by the mayor, and then approved by the city council.

"i don't know if we can compare and contrast different cities, we have a lot of hills, we have cul de sacs," Kinnear said. "We have snow, then it started to melt and then refroze. So it wasn't the ideal scenario for removing all the snow in a 24 hour period. Having said that, we still need to be prepared."

I asked Kinnear if Green Bay can plow within 24 hours and has a similar median income, why could Spokane not.

"We have to budget for it," she said. "it's very simple."

The Thomas family just wants the City to follow through.

“If you can see other cities like Green Bay, who can do it in 24 hours in their city, do you feel like it should be able to be done here?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Thomas said.

The Thomas’ asked the city to consider changing the criteria for a Stage 2 snow event, which is what prompts a full city plow. Instead of six inches, they would like to see it at two or three inches, so the roads never get too compacted with snow and ice.

However, in the end the City did not offer any promises or immediate solutions. So, the Thomas’ may have to wait until next winter to see if any changes will actually be made.