Brutal winter tests public works in Oak Park

Village financial officer says budget shuffle may be needed to pay bills

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

You might not be able to tell by the freezing temperatures and snow on the ground, but spring is here, and possibly no one is happier about it than Oak Park's public works employees.

They've been doing double-duty this winter clearing streets of snow, filling potholes and fixing water main breaks, said Public Works Department Director John Wielebnicki in a telephone interview.

Due to the persistent frigid temperatures this year, Wielebnicki said, water main breaks have been more frequent. The village usually experiences a couple dozen a year, but public works was called out to fix 14 in the first two months of 2014 alone. That's two less than all of last year, Wielebnicki said.

The frost line, or area of ground that freezes below the surface, typically reaches about 2-3 feet deep, he said. But this year frost reached about 4 feet — just about a foot above most water lines.

The lower the frost goes, the more likely it is that old pipes — typically made of cast iron, compared to the more flexible ductile iron pipes the village began installing in the early 1980s — will burst, Wielebnicki said.

"We're not talking about shifting (pipes) a large amount, but if you have an old brittle pipe, it doesn't take much," he added.

It can take workers and contractors as little as four hours or as long as two days to repair a water main break, Wielebnicki said. Left unchecked, they can cause sinkholes and collapse parkways and streets.

The village frequently calls in private contractors that use high-tech founding equipment to pinpoint the location of, and sometimes repair, the breaks. Wielebnicki noted that the high frequency of breaks this year, along with public works employees working overtime to keep the roads clear of snow, has required the village to rely more on contractors.

"In late January and February cold spells, we were stretched pretty thin and working around the clock," he said, adding that, during a normal winter, public works employees will be pulled off the snowplows to work on water main breaks, but that was not an option with blizzards and persistent snowfall this year.

Wielebnicki said the village allots $75,000 a year for sewer and water contractors, and with the bills still coming in, he's unsure whether the work will exceed the budget.

Village Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner said in a telephone interview that it is yet to be determined whether the village will exceed its budget for contractors this year, but if it does, the village board can shift money from less important projects, unused budgets or dip into the so-called Fund Balance, which is a rainy day fund for cost overruns.

"The second question is, 'What are the remaining expenses for the rest of the year?'" said Lesner, noting that the village did not run short on street salt, but the supply now is so low that planners must consider how much is needed for the beginning of next winter. 

Lesner said the village's fiscal year runs parallel with the calendar year, so resources could be stretched thin without a budget amendment. He said street salt typically runs $50-60 per ton, but since so many municipalities have depleted their supplies with the heavy snow this year, they also will be looking to replenish come next winter, which could send the cost as high as $200 per ton.

In addition to salt, the village will have to find money for the overtime paid to public works employees for plowing streets, said village spokesman David Powers. The village budgeted $125,000 for overtime for snowplowing this year.

"We are definitely going to spend that amount," said Powers, adding that public works employees "deserve a pat on the back" this year for working nights, weekends and holidays in some instances to keep the village functioning.

"This winter has gone on and on and probably many of the drivers were reaching a point where even though they knew they were getting overtime, it was becoming difficult to keep working because they were away from their families and away from their homes," he said.

Contact: tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

to Mr. Powers  

Posted: March 26th, 2014 3:46 PM

"They deserve a pat on the back for working nights and weekends?" Isn't that their job? Didn't they get over time?

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