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Winter tests communities

Date: 2/9/2011

Feb. 9, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The approximately 55 inches of snow that has fallen so far this winter has provided challenges to every community in Western Massachusetts and Chicopee and Holyoke have been no exception.

At this point Holyoke has spent about $650,000 on snow removal, while Chicopee has expended $700,000.

The strain is not just on the communities' coffers, but also on the staffs of the two Departments of Public Works (DPW).

Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette told Reminder Publications, "Our guys are tired."

He explained that during the back-to-back storms the region has been experiencing, the crew often get just three to four hours rest before hitting the roads again. When it hasn't been snowing, DPW personnel and private contractors hired by the city have been working to clear corners and widen side streets, Bissonnette added.

Bissonnette noted that with budget cuts made over the years, Chicopee is down eight or nine DPW positions. He added the $700,000 spent so far is about equal to the proposed state budget cut in local aid to the city.

He said that over 400 dump truck loads of snow have been taken from streets and dumped on city property so far. Although the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has given Springfield conditional approval to dump snow directly into the Connecticut River, Bissonnette said Chicopee would not seek that permission. He explained the city has the land to store the snow and would rather the water from melted snow eventually work its way through the water treatment system.

The mayor has some serious concerns about side streets that have not been adequately cleared so far. He called that process "very, very difficult." Sidewalks that have not been shoveled are another worry.

When the snow melts, Bissonnette said there could be serious flooding problems in the city as well.

In Holyoke, DPW Director William Fuqua said widening streets is a "slow and tedious process."

Holyoke is using a 38-year-old over-sized snow blower to help clear off corners. The snow has been trucked to parking lots and other areas, he said.

Fuqua explained he has had to go to the City Council to have additional supplemental budgets approved as his initial line item amount of $150,000 for snow removal and $50,000 for over-time has long been exhausted.

In his 22 winters working for the city, Fuqua said he hasn't seen as much snow or the frequency of the storms.

"It's rare to get two storms back to back," he said. "It's unprecedented."

Like Chicopee, Holyoke has been reducing its DPW workforce for years. Fuqua said he would "like to have another dozen people."

"We're doing as much as we can with the crew we have," he added.

During the storms, the city has employees scheduled around the clock, Fuqua explained. Workers will be on the streets for two consecutive shifts and then get one shift to rest.

While the cities struggle with clearing the snow, the school superintendents for Holyoke and Chicopee are working around the storms as well.

Superintendent David Dupont of Holyoke said he is having a series of meetings with school unions and the School Committee to recover the days lost by the storms.

"We have the same problems everyone else have," he said.

Holyoke allots five days for snow and has used six, he explained. Adding days to the end of the school year doesn't benefit students preparing for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

With the potential of additional snow days, Dupont is considering shaving off days from the April vacation, altering the schedule of a professional development day and even having a Saturday class day.

"Everything is open for discussion," Dupont said.

Chicopee has still two snow days left, but if they were used, Superintendent Richard Rege would also consider cutting the April vacation.

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