Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference
July 16, 2016 Leave a comment
This is part III of my upcoming nonfiction novella chronicling the goings-on of a small Ohio township. The book is structured around the agenda of a township trustee meeting I attended, whose many topics gave me some insight into the complex world of local government and the even more complex world of the personalities behind it.
The book, aptly titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” will be available soon.
Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.
“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.
The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.
“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.
The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.
It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.
Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.
Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.
Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.
Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.
Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.
As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.
Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.
They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.
Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.
Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.
On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.
Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.
“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.
A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.
He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.
A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.
“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”
But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.
The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.
The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.
One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.
Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.
The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:
Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.
The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.
As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.
Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.
“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”
Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.
Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.
Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.
They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?
Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.