Hartford closes schools over snowplow shortage

Hartford’s town roads remained passable during the storm that dumped snow and sleet on the area Thursday and Friday, Supervisor Dana Haff said Sunday.

The storm, which continued for most of the day but produced the most precipitation beginning in the evening, resulted in “a sloppy mix” of snow and slush but generated no complaints about the conditions on the roadways, Haff said.

“I didn’t hear of any problems,” Haff said.

The storm struck the day after Haff had declared a state of emergency due to the ongoing contract dispute with the town’s Highway Department employees. Two of the town’s four highway workers have resigned over the dispute and a third is out of work because of a job-related injury, leaving the town with just one snowplow driver.

The declaration also came the same day the Hartford Central School District was forced to cancel classes – a situation school superintendent Andrew Cook had warned town officials about just a week earlier.

“On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, the district was forced to close after initially being delayed due to hazardous road conditions. As you may have noticed, the Hartford CSD was the only school district in the region to close,” Cook wrote in a message on the district’s website announcing the closure.

“The reason for the closure was due to the Hartford Town Highway Department operating with a limited number of staff. Currently, the Hartford Town Highway Department has only one employee, in addition to the Highway Superintendent. While the Town Highway Department works as hard as they can and does everything within their ability to ensure the Town roads are passable, it is not a realistic expectation that two individuals properly maintain the roads, especially in adverse weather conditions. As a result, the district was forced to close.”

Hartford schools also closed Monday because of inclement weather, as did many of the surrounding districts.

Haff’s declaration, which remains in effect for 30 days, allows the town to make payments to neighboring municipalities to provide road-clearing services without going through the often-lengthy process that would otherwise be required, Haff said. The declaration enables the town to act “faster than the regular red-tape time,” he said.

Towns in the county do have shared-services agreements to assist each other as needed, but Haff said the declaration will speed up the process of reimbursing its neighbors for any services and materials they might provide.

Hartford will pay the employees of other towns that do work in the town at the same rate as they would be paid if working for their home community – even if that rate is more than the town would pay its own employees, Haff said. Hartford will also cover the costs of any materials, such as sand, that the neighboring towns may use on Hartford roads, he said.

The declaration also authorizes Haff to hire part-time drivers at a rate of $21 an hour, a figure approved at the Jan. 10 town board meeting. Regular town highway employees are paid $18.50 per hour under the terms of the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2019. That rate remains in effect until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

Haff said he had received inquiries from “quite a few people interested in working part time,” inquiries he said he referred to town Highway Superintendent Greg Brown.

Brown said he received more than 20 telephone calls in response to the declaration, but only three of those came from people who had the appropriate license to drive a snowplow. The town received help from people who had previously worked part-time with the Highway Department and from a few local volunteers who came forward on their own – not in response to Haff’s appeal, he said.

None of the neighboring towns provided assistance, Brown noted, saying his counterparts in the other towns told him they would be too busy taking care of their own roads to offer help in a timely manner.

The costs of bringing in extra help should not affect the town’s budget, Haff said. The town had included pay for four Highway Department workers in the 2023 spending plan, as well as some provision for part-time workers, so any expenses arising from the emergency declaration should be covered by monies already in the budget, he said.

Payments for any help represent “a bit of wash,” Haff said. “I’m not duplicating the spending.”

Haff also noted that the town had made its most recent offer in the contract negotiations on Jan. 5 but had so far not received a response from the union representing the Highway Department employees.