Who Plows Your Roads?

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“I wanna race in a bigfoot truck.” — Mojo Nixon

Last year the director of Massachusetts DOT District 3 was abruptly fired. Later he and others were indicted and have pleaded not guilty to fraud and corruption charges. He was not a minor official. Thomas Waruzila would have become director of MassHighway a few years earlier except then-Governor Romney thought appointing a woman would help his presidential ambitions.

Earlier this year the DPW commissioner of the city of Lynn resigned and fled Massachusetts. He and some other towns’ officials got caught committing accounting fraud. Nobody was charged.

Both incidents were caused by the way Massachusetts funds snow removal.

Budgets are written in spring. Salaries are in the present. Snow is in the distant future. The line item for snow has a pittance that might clear away half a normal winter’s snow. If more snow falls, planners argue, they can hope to find some free cash later. And so the budget is balanced on paper while in reality there is no budget.

The state’s dilemma

One victim of this system is businessmen.

Many state highways are plowed by independent contractors. Sometimes contracting out work is a good deal for everybody, like when construction and landscaping businesses can keep their men and equipment busy one more season. Other times the contractors use specialized equipment that has no other purpose, and the state simply thinks it can wring more concessions out of private enterprise than unionized state workers.

In 2007 the state snow removal fund was exhausted before the first day of winter. There was no more money to pay for snow removal. Contractors, unlike employees, do not have to be paid on time. Drivers kept working on the nonbinding promise that they would be paid next summer when the legislature passed a supplemental budget.

Led by a trade association, drivers threatened a strike in 2008. The state offered a better contract. An interview suggests that slow pay isn’t as bad as it used to be, but the state budget still doesn’t adequately fund snow removal. There are annual disputes over how much contractors have to spend to bring their equipment up to spec and how much they get paid. Every dollar of pay is a dollar the state wishes it could keep.

An adversarial relationship encourages cheating. Before GPS tracking contractors would pick up loads of salt and sand from the state and spread it on private driveways and parking lots. They were getting paid by the state and using state materials for private work.

The new game is kickbacks. According to prosecutors, the director of MassHighway District 3 preferentially gave contracts to a business he had a financial interest in.

If the state owned its own plows this sort of fraud would mostly disappear. Driving a plow becomes part of a state employee’s job. The state can’t try to shave the last penny from equipment reimbursement because the state owns the equipment. Drivers can’t divert plows to private jobs because a DOT truck working a private business is conspicious.

The downside to do-it-yourself is the high cost of government employees. The state transit agency couldn’t afford to take over commuter rail because private employees would get a 50% pay raise after becoming public employees.

Municipal accounting games

Remember how the snow budget was enough for half a normal winter’s snow? Last winter we got half a normal winter’s snow. Some budgets still ran serious deficits.

Suppose the DPW wants to spend $1 million for routine expenses and a typical year sees $500,000 worth of snow. Voters don’t want a tax increase. The DPW gets $700,000 for routine expenses and $400,000 for snow. The DPW spends $1 million anyway, billing $300,000 in routine expenses to the snow budget. There is only $100,000 left for snow. The plan is to exceed the snow budget by $400,000 and blame the overrun on a harsh winter.

Last winter was obviously not harsh and red ink brought unwelcome scrutiny. After much talk there were few casualties. In Lynn the DPW commissioner got a new job in a city where it has snowed once in recorded history, while local politicians didn’t seem to care how many millions of dollars had been stolen over the years.

The lack of concern worries me. Maybe voters just expect to be lied to.

If we can’t afford to hire more state workers and we won’t hold officials accountable, what do we do? Maybe we would be better off driving monster trucks with 36 inch tires and letting snow pile up for free while we pray for global warming.

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