Area public works officials stymied in search for road salt
Area public works officials say they aren't sure yet where they'll get road salt for the winter, after suppliers this month said they aren't looking to sell to about one-third of Illinois communities that were looking to buy.
Winter might be the last thing on drivers' minds in the depths of Tuesday's humidity, but July is salt-buying season in the public works world. The major operations in the area go through the state's mass-purchasing program when they seek bids from salt suppliers who deliver it by the ton.
With no salt guaranteed, local public works departments are trying to get answers as to what happened and are looking for alternatives long before winter sets in and roads start freezing over.
Last week, 195 officials in charge of their respective salt supplies learned that nobody submitted a bid to deliver salt to their facilities come winter. Another 367 communities received offers and will receive deliveries, according to a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services.
In the immediate area, it looks like at least Champaign County, the city of Champaign, Champaign Township, Savoy and Danville were all left out of the road salt bidding.
"It's a concern," said Danville Public Works Operations Manager Bob Scott. "We're working together with other communities. Fortunately, we know now instead of October."
City of Urbana officials are not yet sure if they should expect salt deliveries this winter, said Public Works operations supervisor John Collins. He said city officials there did not receive the same letter that the other departments got from the state, and he has inquiries in to figure out what's going on.
This past winter's brutality may be to blame — salt supplies are low, and demand is high after public works departments everywhere stretched their salt supplies thin. That is driving up prices and driving down availability.
"Right now, I have no salt," said Tracy Wingler, maintenance supervisor for the Champaign County Highway Department. "Toward the end of winter last year, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel."
And unless the highway department figures out another way to buy salt, it will remain a problem.
"I don't know where we're going to be," Wingler said. "Hopefully, we'll have some salt come winter."
Danville has about 400 tons of salt left from last winter — that's a "low" number, Scott said.
The city of Champaign is in a similar situation, though maybe not quite as dire. Champaign Public Works spokesman Kris Koester said the department has about 1,700 tons of salt on hand — the city typically likes to start the season with 4,250 tons either in storage or on the way.
What the city already has in storage is good for about five or six snowstorms of 5 inches or more, Koester said.
"It's not like we're bone-dry here," he said.
Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, said in a statement that the state will try to remedy the situation.
"CMS is doing everything it possibly can to proactively help the local municipalities — this is the case, although this is not a mandated service on the part of the state," he said. "We see it as part of our mission to help local governments procure road salt and other supplies so that they can benefit from the economies of scale that come from buying in bulk."
Wingler said he is having some trouble getting answers from the state about what its next move is.
"We are not getting any information from anybody on what's going on," Wingler said.
The state has offered to put the 195 departments that did not receive an offer back up for bid. Koester said the city of Champaign will probably pursue that option "just to see what comes back." The city is also looking at going out for bids on its own, he said.
"Outside of that, what CMS is telling us from the state is that they cannot guarantee anything," Koester said.
What they do think is a guarantee, however, is that salt prices will be vastly higher this year. The city of Champaign paid about $57 per ton last year, Koester said. And Wingler said the county paid about $54 per ton.
Among the 367 municipalities that did receive offers, prices were coming in at about $70 to $140 per ton, Claffey said.
"Last summer's bidding process was what we experience after an average winter — supplies were readily available, and prices were in the range we typically see," he said in the statement. "Now, there is less supply and a greater demand to replenish depleted stocks."
The state saw similar supply and price issues in the summer after the 2007-08 winter, which was similar to last year's for harsh conditions, Claffey said.
It is unlikely that the local departments wouldn't be able to find someone who will deliver salt — but it's clear that it will come at a price.
"We're going to pay a hell of a lot more than last year," Wingler said.