An experiment with privatized snow removal got an icy reception this week when residents of Cottonwood Heights found themselves buried after the first big storm of the year.
Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said that after a record-breaking storm walloped the Wasatch Front early Tuesday, newly hired company Terracare failed to clear city streets. The company — which has offices in Colorado and California — deployed resources too slowly to handle the storm, Cullimore explained, initially sending out only four of its 10 snowplows. The remaining plows were activated by Tuesday night, but by then the damage was done and many streets were coated in packed ice.
"They underestimated the storm," Cullimore said. "We got buried. They had to spend all morning just to keep Fort Union [Boulevard] and Highland [Drive] cleared. It was just poor execution and poor planning."
The city was forced to shut down part of Fort Union Boulevard on Tuesday because it was not sufficiently cleared, Cullimore said. The city also saw numerous car slide-offs, some of which Cullimore thought could have been due to the snow-removal problems.
The city hired Terracare earlier this fall to handle some public works — snow removal, road building and other tasks — in an effort to get "more bang for its buck," according to Cullimore. The city previously had contracted with Salt Lake County for snow removal. Cullimore said that while the county previously "spoiled" the city when it came to snow removal, leaders hoped privatization would give them greater flexibility and value.
Cottonwood Heights is paying $1.45 million to Terracare for the first eight months of the contract, which lasts about 3½ years.
Terracare President Dean Murphy acknowledged Wednesday that the response to the storm was inadequate. Murphy said his company planned for the storm, but when it dumped more snow more quickly than expected, officials realized they hadn’t deployed enough plows. Murphy also said that because it was Terracare’s first storm in Cottonwood Heights, the company was still learning which routes are most important to the city, as well as how the area’s micro-climates behave.
"There’s no question we’ll do better as we continue with the city," Murphy added.
Terracare has other municipal contracts including in Centennial, Colo., which has a population over 100,000. Cullimore said Cottonwood Heights (population 34,000) thoroughly vetted Terracare before signing the contract. City officials believed the company could handle snow removal, but after the storm, the company’s "performance says differently," Cullimore said.
That performance has angered residents. Ben Watts lives on 2700 East — a major street that serves a school and a recreation center — and by Wednesday hadn’t seen any plows in his neighborhood. More than a day after the storm hit, the roads were covered in several inches of ice, and Watts said the situation is worse than he has ever seen it during his 15 years on 2700 East.
"How do you get caught off guard in December by a snowstorm?" he wondered, adding that the debacle was a "massive failure" for privatizing public works.
Cullimore also was frustrated, but said that after meeting with "humbled" Terracare officials Wednesday, he didn’t "see anything that is a fundamental fatal flaw" in the company. According to Cullimore, the city could get out of its contract if Terracare fails to deliver, though he expressed hope that the company would learn from its mistakes.
"They went on stage for the first time and they forgot their lines," Cullimore said, "but maybe next time they’ll remember their lines."
The company may get a chance for an encore soon; according to the National Weather Service, another storm should arrive this weekend.
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