ROCKLAND, Maine — Earlier this week, Rockland’s Public Works Department attracted statewide attention over a new, informal policy — implemented at the beginning of this winter — to allow up to 3 inches of snow to accumulate on side streets before plowing.
The policy earned statewide political attention when the office of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves cited it as an example of how decreased state aid to cities and towns impairs the ability to provide basic services.
After Tuesday’s significant snowfall, however, Rockland’s mayor seemingly backtracked on the policy, saying the City Council never mandated plowing side streets only after 3 inches of snow had fallen.
“At no time did council vote, formally or informally, mandating any specific policy or direction to the public works director. On the contrary, we were all in agreement that each storm is unique and a common-sense approach should always be applied,” Mayor Frank Isganitis said Thursday.
But the unwritten policy was implemented this winter by the Public Works Department after an Oct. 29 meeting with city councilors. At that meeting, councilors voiced skepticism about salting and sanding nearly all city roads at the start of a storm.
Councilors also criticized the practice of sending plows to side streets when there is little snow on the roads.
The city’s police chief said this week his officers had concerns about the practice of having road crews pay less attention to side streets. Chief Bruce Boucher said the department has not used its rear-wheel-drive Ford Crown Victoria cruiser this year when it snows because the vehicle does not handle well when plowable snow is on the streets.
To ensure efficiency and control costs, Isganitis said the council asked the Public Works Department to develop a list of streets that would be priorities for snow removal.
“When we learned about the practice of calling in two crews simultaneously, we suggested the director consider staggering crews if the circumstance allowed for it, understanding that this might result in snow accumulation on our streets,” Isganitis said this week.
During the Oct. 29 meeting, Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said residents in her South End neighborhood asked why plows would go by their homes on a regular basis during a storm even if there was no additional accumulation.
“It’s a loop they’re consistently on, like no one told the gerbils to get off,” MacLellan-Ruf said.
Councilor Eric Hebert said he did not understand why crews needed to sand and salt side roads that did not have hills. He said if people drove prudently during the storms, that would not be necessary.
Councilor Larry Pritchett, who served as mayor during that meeting, said a bare road policy made sense for Route 1 and other main streets but not for side streets.
MacLellan-Ruf said having full crews out from the start of a storm to have bare roads on all streets was the reason for the incredible amount of compensatory time and overtime for public works employees.
Isganitis, a city councilor at the time, said at the Oct. 29 meeting that if a change created problems, the city would hear from residents.
Public Works Director Greg Blackwell said Monday he has heard from only one resident, who lives on a dead-end street.
The mayor said this week that two crews plowing streets simultaneously can clear all streets in about two hours. But, he pointed out, the city’s labor contract with public works employees requires anyone called out needs to be paid at least for four hours of work.
He said by staggering shifts, the city could save money.
Public works officials around the state said they were not aware of communities that have a policy of waiting for 3 inches to fall before plowing side streets.