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Employee turnover and the loss of institutional knowledge contributes to poor City of Mill Creek snow response

The city now has one only one four-wheel drive truck with a snow plow attachment to keep city streets clear of snow. The four-person maintenance staff made the best of it and worked many overtime hours, but this was entirely inadequate for last weekend’s snow storm.
City of Mill Creek snow removal equipment. Photo credit Mill Creek Public Works Supervisor Matthew Combs

By Richard Van Winkle, News of Mill Creek, February 19, 2021.

When talking about facing challenges, former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld once said, “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”

New Mill Creek Public Works and Development Services Director Mike Todd didn’t have the information he needed to manage the city’s limited resources in dealing with the 2021 Valentine's Day weekend snow storm challenges.

He didn’t know what he didn’t know about how to keep city streets clear of snow and neither did anyone else at the city.

City Manager Michael Ciaravino was out of town during the snowstorm but called staff frequently.

As well, even though the city council unanimously approved the purchase of snow handling equipment and hiring an additional maintenance worker in a December 2019 budget amendment, these resources weren’t acquired by Ciaravino’s administration in 2020.

Former Finance Director Tara Dunford added $230,000 to the Equipment Replacement Fund to pay for “two new dump trucks with plowing and de-icing capabilities” as part of the 2019 Mid-Biennium Budget Amendment. She told the city council that funding was available for this purchase.

The resolution adopting the budget amendment was approved unanimously at the December 3, 2019, city council meeting.

In a telephne interview, Todd said that the snow plow and dump truck procurement hadn’t begun when he started working for the city in September 2020. He went on to say that at the time he didn’t know whether or not the equipment purchases were still part of the city’s capital budget.

The city staff who had the knowledge had already departed.

The city now has one only one four-wheel drive truck with a snow plow attachment to keep city streets clear of snow. The four-person maintenance staff made the best of it and worked many overtime hours, but this was entirely inadequate for last weekend’s snow storm.

The loss of institutional knowledge in the Public Works Department when key public works employees quit their jobs last year robbed the city of years of experience.

In 2020 Director Gina Hortillosa left the city in May, Public Works Supervisor Nathan Beagle took a job with Silver Lake Water District in June, Supervising Engineer Matthew Feeley quit in August, and Project Engineer Irvine Trijo resigned in September.

Hortillosa's staff did a great job clearing snow from city streets in January 2020.

The city council including then Councilmember Mike Todd unanimously praised Hortillosa and her staff at their January 14th regular meeting for their non-stop overtime efforts.

Hortillosa told the city council at the time that an on-call snow removal contract with KLB Construction assisted her four-person maintenance crew to clear city streets and to keep them clear. She also said that Snohomish County helped plow primary roads through the city including Bothell-Everett Highway, 132nd Street SE, Seattle Hill Road, and 35th Avenue SE.

Having worked in Snohomish County’s Public Works Department before taking over Mill Creek’s Public Works and Development Services Department, Hortillosa knew exactly who to call at the county to get their assistance for Mill Creek’s snow removal efforts. This knowledge was lost when she and her staff left the city.

Todd said he met with KLB Construction representatives in the fall of 2020 to discuss the potential for renewing the previous on-call contract. He went on to say they told him they weren’t interested in providing snow removal services for the upcoming winter because snow removal wasn’t really their business.

Todd also reported that neither he nor anyone on his staff knew that Snohomish County didn’t automatically provide snow removal services along primary routes as part of an interlocal agreement, but had to be told that their services were required.

He added that as of Sunday afternoon, February 14th, Snohomish County crews hadn’t cleared the county portions of Seattle Hill Road and 35th Avenue SE inside or outside city limits. “There was packed snow on both roads inside and outside of the city,” Todd said.

Todd was unclear about the city’s responsibility to remove snow from state roads. He said Washington State Department of Transportation trucks with snow plows clearing SR-527 (Bothell-Everett Highway) and SR-96 (132nd Street SE) raised their blades when entering city limits and lowered them when leaving city limits, leaving these roads packed with snow within city limits.

He wondered whether or not the state or the city had snow removal responsibility. He said the state pays for repaving the state roads and intersections within city limits.

Todd now knows who to contact for help at Snohomish County, but doesn’t know who to talk to at the state Department of Transportation.

He still doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but is learning.

Mill Creek city streets were filled with snow over the 2021 Valentines Day weekend. It took days for rising temperatures to make streets passable. Public works staff did their best, but weren't able to totally remove snow from most roadways.

A Mill Creek residential street waiting for snow removal. Photo credit Sachie Tunick, City of Mill Creek Facebook page.

Mill Creek city streets were filled with snow over the 2021 Valentines Day weekend. It took days for rising temperatures to make streets passable. Public works staff did their best, but weren't able to totally remove snow from most roadways.

Mill Creek resident enjoys snow along city street. Photo credit Jessica Classen, City of Mill Creek Facebook page.

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