Columbia Association maintenance crews battle ice, snow, slush and fatigue

February 13, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Willie Snowden struggled to maneuver the Toro Groundsmaster down the Columbia Road sidewalk, no easy feat in the 12 inches of heavy slush that had amassed along the roadside by midday Friday after county plows had cleared the street.

The Groundsmaster -- equipment more typically used for cutting grass on balmy days -- stalled, spun and lurched forward in the pelting sleet as the Columbia Association maintenance foreman cleared a swath for walking with the attached V-shaped plow.

While they may not have roads to plow, the nonprofit association's maintenance crews certainly have no want for pavement to clear when winter summons. And, even before Friday's storm, the 31-member crew had exceeded the 3,000 work hours allocated for snow emergency work in this year's budget, the equivalent of about two 50-hour weeks for each worker.

The harsh winter weather has "stretched us to the utmost in a number of ways," said Fred Pryor, director of the association's Open Space Management division. "Now we're dealing with things that go beyond the norm."

Mr. Pryor said it's too early to tell how the extra snow-emergency labor and material purchases will affect the budget for the association's current fiscal year. Unanticipated labor costs could made up through savings in other budget areas or by adjusting labor priorities, according to division managers.

The maintenance workers are paid between $9 and $13 per hour, which comes to between $27,000 and $39,000 in wages for 3,000 hours' work. The division's personnel budget is $1.8 million, including overtime.

The division ran out of salt during a storm prior to Friday's sleet and had to wait until a wholesaler fulfilled obligations to county and state governments before receiving a new shipment, Mr. Pryor said.

"Every once in a while in a typical year we have to add salt," he said. "But there have been salt trucks in and out of here in the last month almost as often as our own trucks."

The association's land-maintenance workers plow parking lots and driveways for about 20 Columbia village and neighborhood centers and clear sidewalks and 71 miles of pathways along association open space property. They also help Hobbit's Glen Golf Course maintenance workers clear pavement at Columbia's recreational facilities.

Out on the Columbia Road sidewalk in the Dorsey Hall community, the brakes on Mr. Snowden's Groundsmaster froze, so his partner took it back to the association's maintenance facility to exchange it for a thawed-out mower.

Open-space division managers try to treat the workers the same way, staggering shifts and pairing them on the streets so they can switch off between battling the elements aboard a mower on a desolate pathway and driving a warm truck.

"You can't burn everyone out and run your equipment out," said Chick Rhodehamel, the association ecologist and a supervisor. "As this winter has showed us, it ain't over till it's over."

Mr. Pryor recognizes that the severe cold and icy conditions have exacted a cost from workers.

"It's really exhausted the staff," he said. "These guys are doing a yeoman's job, weeks on end, weekends, nights. They're starting to look a little haggard."

Those efforts haven't gone unnoticed.

"CA has done an excellent job keeping our parking lot and sidewalks clear," said Ruth Bohse, Owen Brown Village manager.

But Friday, it was tough to keep up. Even though the driveway at the Horse Center had been plowed in the morning, association President Padraic Kennedy had to alert the maintenance center in the afternoon that horse owners couldn't get vehicles through the driveway.

About 40 to 45 association workers, including a contingent from Open Space Management's construction division, participated in the sleet-removal effort.

Back at the maintenance center on Friday, workers mixed a short supply of salt with a more abundant pile of sand and rock -- enough for eight truckloads.

"That should get us through the weekend," said Frank Standafer, a special projects foreman who reported to work at 4 a.m. Friday to help get crews rolling.

A5 "Then it's up to management [to find more salt]."

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