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Local Municipalities Dealing With Higher Road Salt Prices

November 27, 2018
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Local Municipalities Dealing With Higher Road Salt Prices

Winter could be more expensive for Luzerne County municipalities this year.

When cities, borough and townships across the county buy road salt through the state’s cooperative purchasing program this winter, they will be paying about 46 percent more than they paid last year.

Municipalities in the county paid $51 for a ton of road salt last year through COSTARS, the state’s cooperative buying program. The price has been $74.29 per ton since August 2018, and it will remain that price through July 2019.

The increase comes after a harsh winter that depleted salt reserves and production issues at two major North American mines, according to an Associated Press report.

Many local governments in the Northeast and Great Lakes region are burdened by salt prices that range from about 5 percent higher to almost twice what they paid last year.

In Pennsylvania, municipalities can use the COSTARS program run through the state’s Department of General Services, to buy materials like salt at a set price without having to solicit bids. Through the program, municipalities must buy at least 60 percent of their initial salt order, and may buy up to 140 percent at a guaranteed rate, giving officials some flexibility in the event of an unexpectedly mild or severe winter.

Salt prices differ by county based on contracts between the state and various salt vendors that submit bids to serve individual counties. Local governments in Lackawanna County utilizing COSTARS, for example, are paying $53.54 per ton of salt this year, which is an increase of 5 percent. American Rock Salt is providing the product to COSTARS members in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties this year.

Statewide, average COSTARS salt prices increased by about 9 percent this year.

“The final price that you see was the best pricing we were able to obtain for our members,” said Troy Thompson, press secretary for the state Department of General Services. “You will see in some counties that the price is higher ... but what you are seeing is the best price among all the vendors that put in a bid for that specific county.”

The number of COSTARS members in a particular county, the demand for salt there and other logistical issues often bear on the bid salt vendors submit, Thompson said.

For Luzerne County municipalities dealing with the increase, the higher prices could delay other work.

Wilkes-Barre, for example, pays for road salt with funding from the state’s Municipal Liquid Fuels Program, which is based on population and miles of roads approved for the program.

It also uses that funding for other road-related work, such as repairs to city vehicles, paving, traffic signals and other projects.

Because clearing the roads during winter storms is an urgent necessity, those other items will be delayed if more money is needed for salt, said Butch Frati, the city’s operations director.

But if winter ends up being mild and the city spends less on salt than it anticipates, some of that work might fit in the budget.

Wilkes-Barre placed an order for 4,000 tons of road salt through COSTARS. Under the program’s guidelines, it must buy at least 2,400 tons, and it is guaranteed that price for up to 5,600 tons.

The city will try not to waste the resource, Frati said.

For example, workers calibrate the equipment used to spread salt so they aren’t over-salting. In fact, if a heavy snowstorm is predicted, salt may be counterproductive. The Department of Public Works will treat streets before a heavy snowfall, then only plow until snow stops falling, then begin salting again, Frati said.

Another tactic to save money is covering truck beds, which lets the department save leftover salt instead of watching it harden and go to waste.

Luzerne County, which maintains about 127 miles of roads, ordered 3,000 tons of salt. It must buy at least 1,800 tons and is guaranteed the price up to 4,200 tons.

If it needs more than that amount, the county would solicit bids, said Eddie O’Neill, operational services director.

The county will use what it needs to maintain safe roads, but it will try to avoid over-salting, he said.

Training from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation helps determine the ideal amount of salt to use depending on conditions. County employees calibrate the salt spreaders to make sure they are distributing it properly and track the weather to best meet the requirements of each storm.

“I don’t know too many people who can do it perfectly, but there are steps we can take to make sure we use what we need and not any more,” O’Neill said.

Contact the writers:

bwellock@citizensvoice.com

570-821-2051, @CVBillW

jhorvath@timesshamrock.com

570-348-9141; @jhorvathTT

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