Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City's snowplows have not had what you would call a bear of a winter.

They might as well have hibernated.

Only once this winter have city crews summoned the steel plows to scrape snowbound streets.

And even on that day, Feb. 4, workers exercised the plows for just a few hours in the morning, said Tom Fisk, the city's street supervisor.

The flakes that fell that morning were feather-light, and they tended to blow away before the plow scooped them up, he said.

This presents quite a contrast to last winter. During the winter of 2001-2002, workers plowed the entire city eight times, Fisk said.

Several times during and after storms they worked around the clock, spread among four overlapping eight-hour shifts, a system designed to keep every truck rolling as many minutes as possible, but minimize overtime, Fisk said.

Even with those budget-protecting precautions, the city's bill for snow and ice control totaled $71,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002, said Laura Harryman, the city's finance director.

The city budgets about $46,000 per year.

So far this fiscal year it has spent $11,344.

andquot;It's a unique year,andquot; Fisk said.

He said employees who have worked for the city since the 1970s recall only one winter 1976-77 that resembled this year's version.

In addition to keeping their distance from snowplows, city workers have pretty much passed on the salt-spreading duty this year.

In 2002 they dumped 45,540 pounds of salt to melt snow and ice at busy intersections.

This January, normally the saltiest part of the season, they didn't drop a single grain.

That, Fisk said, might be a first for January.

The abnormal weather was well-timed, said Dick Fleming, the city's public works director.

Saving $25,000 the approximate amount of overtime siphoned into snow removal last year won't fix the city's looming budget dilemma, but every dollar assumes added value as city officials strive to stave off layoffs, Fleming said.

Savings this winter aren't as substantial as the numbers suggest, however.

With a budget of $46,000, and spending so far of $11,000, it would seem the city has an extra $35,000.

But that's not the case, Fleming said.

Here's why:

Freed from the shackles of snowplowing duty, public works crews have concentrated on other tasks they usually postpone during the cold months, Fleming said.

So although spending for snow and ice control is down, the bill for other types of work is up compared with a normal winter.

For example, crews have graded miles of gravel streets this winter, a task they typically reserve until spring, Fleming said.

That could save the city some dollars, he said, because those streets should be smoother, and thus require less maintenance, later in the year.

Fisk said mild temperatures also made possible projects that workers rarely, if ever, even would consider undertaking during winter.

They've managed, for example, to install several sections of water and sewer pipe.

In a normal winter frost hardens soft ground to the consistency of concrete you can dig trenches for utility pipes in such conditions, but it's awfully hard on excavating machines, Fisk said.

No such problems this winter.

Ice has crusted the surface a few times, but never has it penetrated more than a couple inches below, Fisk said.