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Lack of snow creates opportunities, challenges for the business of snow removal

First, some good news. St. Paul hasn’t had a snow emergency yet in the 2023-24 snow season. In fact, the region has seen just over 14 inches of snow this season, well below the average snowfall of 51.2 inches. Prior to this year, the latest St. Paul had seen a snow emergency was in the winter of 2018-19, when a snow emergency wasn’t declared until January 28, though that winter ended up having seven snow emergencies and a one-sided parking ban.

Compared to last year’s snow totals, which were just over 90 inches and the third snowiest ever, this year has been a walk in the (brown and muddy) park.

But all this lack of snow begs the question; what happens with snow plowing operations when there is now snow to plow?

For the City of St. Paul, they are able to get some things accomplished that typically are on the back burner during the winter months.

According to Lisa Hiebert, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, crews have been busy at work street sweeping and pothole patching, as well as working proactively on things like illegal dumping, bridge and equipment maintenance and even vegetation management.

“We are doing a lot of the things we weren’t able to get into last year because of the sheer amount of snow we had,” she said.

Hiebert said that the lack of snow has allowed City crews to be more proactive and responsive to resident complaints, which are atypical for a Minnesota February.

“We aren’t getting a ton of pothole or street condition complaints. They are way down, lower than normal,” she said. “One of the biggest complaints we are getting is there are leaves in the street.” 

She added the City is out sweeping some streets and does have their annual residential street sweeping planned for April.

For Tom Monson, owner of Monson Lawn and Landscaping located at 1133 S. Rankin St., the warmer weather has been a bit tougher on the snow removal side of his business.

“We run 11 crews when it snows,” he said. “Due to the severe lack of snow, we haven’t been able to afford to keep all of our staff on, so some guys have been laid off.”

Monson said that he and his administrative staff have been able to stay busy this season, and they have been able to keep some of his crews on by having them work in the shop doing things like deep cleaning and repairing broken down equipment.

Impact on the bottom line

Monson, who opened his lawn care business while he was in high school and has been offering snow removal for the past 10 years, said that this winter will be a financial blow for him.

“The lack of snow will result in a large revenue hit for us this winter because we are not charging for as many add-on services, like salting, snow hauling and billing our per-time clients,” he said.

With that said, last year’s above average snowfall wasn’t as much of a windfall for his business as one might expect.

“We base our pricing for this flat rate off of the average number of snowfalls, and also the average total inches of accumulation, in a given season,” Monson said. “Last year’s 93 inches of accumulation was nearly double the average. But none of our flat rate clients were billed any extra. We ended up eating a lot of extra variable costs last year.” 

However, Monson said that, between the two years, the region should be on track for the average snowfall and snow events. He said his ongoing service contracts to over 275 clients based on those averages will keep him afloat, despite his overhead costs, including insurance, equipment purchases and leases, and having a dependable, steady workforce.

“We have a lot of skin in the game, therefore if a client wants a spot on our routes, we require them to have skin in the game as well,” he said.

Impacts on the City budget work a little differently than a small business, though.

The City of St. Paul budgets for four snow emergencies per year, at an average cost of $600,000-$800,000 apiece. These events are over and above what is budgeted for typical winter maintenance of our streets and bridges.

So the City is saving a large portion of its budget this year because of the mild winter we are experiencing, right?

Well, it’s complicated.

“First and foremost, a friendly reminder, we live in this wonderful state of Minnesota. We have a few more months of winter left to come,” said Heibert.

Despite the unknowns of what will happen the rest of this snow season, it is still too early to tell if the record-low snow totals in St. Paul will work out to be a cost savings for taxpayers. The biggest reason is the city’s budget runs from January to December, which encompasses parts of two snow seasons.

“2023 used and went beyond the winter maintenance budget,” Hiebert said. “We had four total snow emergencies in 2023, two in January and and two in February. We were going to do one in March but declared a one sided parking ban. We were very fortunate that we didn’t have any in the fall.”

In addition, the winter maintenance budget encompasses a lot of things over and above snow emergencies, and crews are taking care of some lingering issues left over from the last snow season.

“Last year was really hard on the equipment because it was used constantly. We are getting in some deferred maintenance,” Hiebert said.

That said, according to Hiebert, this year’s mild winter will hopefully set the City up for success come spring.

“Because of the type of winter we had last year, and the amount of plowing and winter work we had to do on our streets, it created a lot of damage and it pushed back our ability to get in and do pothole patching in the winter and put us behind,” she said. “It set the tone for the summer because we were playing catch up all year long. It is a nice reprieve to allow us to get caught up. Hopefully when we go into the spring our streets are looking pretty good.”

Hiebert added that City crews are out working all year long to make city streets safe and passable. Despite their ability to be more proactive this year, they still want to hear from residents and business owners if there is an issue.

“If people see things they should report it to us,” she said.

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