Globe Editorial

Paying plows by inch, not hour, can save a city’s snow budget

December 28, 2010

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QUINCY HAS taken some of the worry out of winter with the bright idea to pay plow drivers per inch of snow removal, not per hour. The experiment is already reducing both costs and service complaints, according to officials in the city of 91,000.

On the surface, the system makes a lot of sense: pay contractors for performance, not the time spent idling in their trucks in anticipation of a storm’s start time. Beneath the surface, it makes a lot of sense, too. People are fed up with the escalating costs of municipal government, driven by the high costs of pensions and health care for public employees. While the administration of Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch makes clear that it is not picking a fight with its unionized city workers — who are the first to man the plows during a storm — it is making a powerful statement about the need for cost-containment and competition in the delivery of basic city services.

Quincy started this experiment last winter when it hired a Stoughton-based contractor to plow out a couple of the city’s wards on a per-inch basis. The limited program shaved about 10 percent off the cost of snow removal in the city, according to Public Works Commissioner Larry Prendeville. This year, Prendeville has added a second contractor and expanded the program to cover about 75 percent of the South Shore city’s roughly 280 miles of roadway. Now, instead of keeping track of 130 small contractors, DPW managers can concentrate largely on monitoring the performance of the two major contractors working by the inch.

For a storm that dumps up to 2 inches, Quincy pays the plowing contractor about $8,600 to clear a typical ward in the city. The deeper the snow, the more it costs. A dumping of a foot of snow in the same ward, for example, pays about $34,000. This system moves much of the risk from taxpayers to snowplow operators; under the terms of the contract, a massive storm that drops more than 18 inches on the city would pay contractors just $5,000 per ward. Not surprisingly, all parties waited anxiously yesterday for a “certified weather statement’’ from Hull-based New England Weather Science to determine the official snowfall from Sunday’s huge storm.

It’s not uncommon to find pay-per-inch or lump-sum arrangements for clearing large commercial parking lots. But applying the model to city roadways is rare, according to the nonprofit American Public Works Association.

As word gets around, hundreds of departments of public works will be tracking this innovative effort of the Koch administration in Quincy. All cities with high snow-removal costs should take note. It looks like Quincy has found a promising way to remove both snow and budget shortfalls in winters ahead.