Salt bin removal draws protests

Pikesville road residents had use of it until this year

Balto. Co. eliminated practice

January 20, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

For decades, Baltimore County road crews filled a barrel at the bottom of a hill on Anita Road in Pikesville with salt, and residents shoveled some on the road to melt the snow and ice until the plows came.

But when the first flakes fell this winter, there was no barrel, no salt and, according to Merv Margolies, no way to get out.

"We're like prisoners here," he said.

Margolies, a 73-year-old jewelery dealer who has lived on Anita Road for 40 years, complained to the county, but he found that in Pikesville, and in other areas of metropolitan Baltimore, the self-service, street-corner salt reserve is becoming something of a relic.

Baltimore City and Harford County still have salt bins in some places. But Baltimore County eliminated them nearly everywhere a decade ago, even if the public works crew for Pikesville kept filling the barrel on Anita Road until this year. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties have dropped them, too.

"The reason we have abandoned this practice is that not only are these barrels a maintenance problem, but they are also a liability to Baltimore County," Public Works Director Edward C. Adams Jr. wrote to Margolies last month. "There have been several cases of vandalism to the salt barrels, as well as citizens being injured while attempting to shovel frozen salt."

With improved coordination and modern communications equipment, county officials say, they can respond to residents' requests to salt a road just about as fast as the residents can shovel it from a bin.

Margolies doesn't buy it. He lives on a dead-end road on a curving hill east of Stevenson Road, and it doesn't rate high in the county's list of plowing priorities, which are designed to clear major streets first. He said that he has called the county plenty of times and that the salt trucks don't come nearly as fast as the county promises.

"The hill is impossible to go up, and when you slide down, you just hope you don't damage anything," Margolies said.

For decades, wooden bins of salt have popped up around the region in the winter, and they still do in about 1,000 spots in the city. Elsewhere, they are gone or have been replaced by a 55-gallon steel drum. Margolies and some of his neighbors are amazed to hear of Baltimore County's position that salt bins put the government at risk for a lawsuit.

Ron Walpert, who has lived on Anita Road since 1985, can hardly imagine how someone could be injured shoveling salt.

"You put the shovel in, you pull the shovel out," he said. "That's it."

Local officials from around the region couldn't provide examples of lawsuits or threatened lawsuits for salt-shoveling injuries. Nonetheless, the concern that someone could get hurt using the bins was a factor in their elimination in Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties.

Pam Jordan, an Anne Arundel County spokeswoman, said the county stopped putting salt barrels near dangerous patches of roads a few years ago, figuring that with modern forecasting and in-truck communications, the professionals could get to the trouble spots before they became problems.

"Rather than put anybody at risk on an already unsafe road, we have the equipment and the communications systems to address it and provide that service on their behalf," she said.

Kenny Gemmill, district superintendent of the highways division of Harford County's Public Works Department, doesn't see the barrels as a problem. They need only be filled once a year, and the salt-sand mixture is not expensive.

"They're popular," he said. "People are happy with them, and they're utilized."

A local government noting liability concerns in eliminating salt bins is a prime example of the convoluted logic of a litigation-prone society, said Philip Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.

Because of the remote risk that someone could get injured shoveling salt, he said, the county is exacerbating the risk that people could have accidents on slick pavement.

"Is it better not to have that kind of cooperative venture between the citizens and the county?" Howard said. "You can't get sued if you do nothing, I suppose is the theory, although that's probably not true either."

Tim Burgess, Baltimore County's longtime Highways Bureau chief, said that removing the salt bins hasn't made anybody less safe. Although the county won't change the order in which it plows streets during a winter storm, it has a 24-hour hot line residents can call to get salt on icy roads. The trucks can get anywhere in the county within 15 or 20 minutes, he said.

And he said he received calls from people complaining that they slipped and fell when trying to shovel frozen salt. If the salt has any moisture in it and the temperature drops below 25 degrees, he said, the drums turn into big salt-sicles.

Burgess said the salt barrels were "a maintenance nightmare." He had to divert people who could be filling potholes to fill salt barrels instead. Children liked to roll the containers down the street, and Burgess had to send people to put them back. And, he said, people used the barrels more to salt their driveways than the streets.

Ten years ago, the county stopped maintaining the salt barrels in every part of the county except in the Pikesville area -- the maintenance district there apparently didn't get the memo. Burgess said people complained initially, but they got over it.

"Everybody was saying, `You can't do that, you've got to bring me my salt barrel,'" Burgess said. "I said, `You do it my way for one year and call me next year if you need it.' Nobody called back."

To Margolies, those explanations fall flat.

"Nobody ever had a problem on our street because we had the salt box," Margolies said. "We were able to take care of ourselves, and we never bothered them."

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