State cites budget crunch for changes
State officials say they can no longer afford to apply sand and salt to snow and ice on Highway 20 in Winthrop and Twisp unless the towns cover the cost, putting local officials in a bind about how to keep drivers safe.
The news, delivered to town officials on Nov. 26, was especially unsettling because it came one day after the first snowfall of the season. Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said he responded to nine vehicle crashes between Winthrop and Highway 153 on Nov. 25 and 26.
“We are very concerned about the health and safety of people in our community,” Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said at the Nov. 26 Town Council meeting.
Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau said on Monday (Dec. 2) that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) didn’t treat the highway in Winthrop until the day after about 4 inches of snow fell in the valley.
“We were having accidents, and it was a dangerous situation,” Ranzau said.
Both mayors noted that it had been WSDOT’s practice to treat the highway for snow and ice at no cost to the towns.
“We’ve always had a good working relationship with WSDOT, as far as maintaining [the highway] through town,” Ranzau said.
WSDOT officials said a budget crunch prompted them to tell town and city officials in the region they would need to foot the bill for sand and salt applications.
“Our maintenance and operations budget has been on the squeeze for years,” said Lauren Loebsack, communications manager for WSDOT’s North Central Regional Office.
“There have been stressors on what we are able to do in our region for a while, as material costs go up and the budget is not increased to accommodate those,” Loebsack added.
WSDOT has cut hours for temporary staff to 30 hours a week, to meet a more restricted budget, Loebsack said. When the time comes to close North Cascades Highway, she said, the agency will close the gate on the west end at milepost 130 rather than the usual milepost 134, to shave a few miles off their winter maintenance demand.
The two mayors said the unexpected news now puts a sudden strain on their own budgets.
Ing-Moody said on Monday (Dec. 2) in an email to Ranzau that paying WSDOT for ice and snow treatment would “at least triple our current budgeted amount for street operating supplies,” which stands at $1,000. Winthrop officials estimate they would spend $4,000 in 2020 on the treatments.
Besides breaking Twisp’s road budget, Ing-Moody argued in her email that the state is responsible for maintaining Highway 20 in the town limits. WSDOT’s maintenance manuals indicate that responsibility falls to the towns, but Ing-Moody reads the state code differently and seeks clarification.
She has reached out to state Rep. Keith Goehner and Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover for support.
“Twisp will not be agreeing to pay for a service that has always and should continue to be provided by the state,” Ing-Moody wrote. “There is clarity needed on the language and intent of the state to only charge cities (not counties — other local jurisdictions) for snow and ice treatments.”
WSDOT’s decision doesn’t affect snow treatments on state highways in unincorporated parts of the valley, including Mazama, Carlton and Methow. State officials said they would continue to plow the highway inside town limits; the decision only affects applications of sand and salt.
Ranzau said Winthrop sent a request to WSDOT on Monday (Dec. 2) to continue the treatments with an assurance that the town would pay for them.
However, the town’s complaints have been heard, and WSDOT has reverted to providing treatments at no cost for now, according to Don Becker, the agency’s new Okanogan area maintenance superintendent. Becker had worked in maintenance out of Twisp for 27 years.
“As of right now, we’re business as usual,” Becker said on Monday (Dec. 2). “We’re doing the same as we’ve always done. We’re not billing anybody for it.”
Becker went on to say that the timing of WSDOT’s announcement — the day after the snow fell — happened to be “the luck of the draw.” Becker had just come into his new position earlier in November, and his office needed to calculate fees, based on the number of lane miles, for each of the affected cities before arranging meetings with them.
The situation isn’t settled. Becker couldn’t rule out the possibility that the state would institute the fees for snow and ice treatments after all.
“That may be the direction that we’re going,” he said. “Everybody’s budget’s getting a little bit tightened up.”