Urbana road salt

Champaign Township Road District workers leave a salt dome in January 2019 to put de-icing solution on streets in preparation for a winter storm.

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URBANA — At a recent Urbana City Council meeting, aldermen heard that the price of road salt had nearly doubled in the past year, resulting in an unexpected budget increase of $21,000.

Not the best of news with winter approaching.

A strike last year at a salt mine under Lake Huron and flooding this spring along the Mississippi River may be to blame.

“Supply and demand forced the increase, specifically a labor strike from supplying mines and seasonal flooding delaying barge shipments,” said Elizabeth Hannan, the city’s finance director.

Urbana orders its road salt through the state, which gets it from companies like Cargill — which has salt mines in Ohio, New York and Louisiana — and Compass Minerals, a Kansas-based mineral company.

Compass Minerals operates a mine in Ontario that it claims is “the largest underground salt mine in the world. The mine is as deep as the CN Tower in Toronto is tall.”

Last year, workers there went on a 12-week strike, eventually reaching a three-year deal with built-in wage increases.

Compass Minerals spokesman Rick Axthelm attributed the price increase to supply and demand, noting a strong winter last season that increased demand and the supply being impacted by spring flooding.

This spring, heavy rains flooded the Mississippi and other rivers, closing locks and dams and disrupting salt barges along the way.

Now Urbana is paying for these disruptions.

Because the city wasn’t able to renew last year’s contract, the price of road salt nearly doubled, increasing from $55 a ton to $102, according to Vince Gustafson, Urbana’s deputy director of operations in the public works department.

“This is probably one of the steeper increases,” Gustafson said. “I’m hopeful that the markets will correct themselves in future years.”

Gustafson also said there are “regional differences in the pricing.”

The higher-than-expected price means Urbana will pay $116,000 for salt this year, $21,000 more than the $95,000 that was budgeted for it.

“We’ve got to have salt,” Hannan said.

“We have to commit to purchase a certain quantity early in the year before (the state) actually receives the bids,” Hannan told the council. “The bids were higher than they have been in some years.”

Champaign is paying $71.71 per ton this year, but has seen similar increases in the past.

From 2013 to 2014, the price Champaign paid increased from $57 per ton to $108.

Champaign is paying a lower price than Urbana this year because it renewed last year’s contract, which limits increases to 10 percent.

“We currently have 3,322 tons of salt,” said Kris Koester, spokesman for Champaign’s public works department. “Ultimately we are good this year on salt, good price and have a good amount on hand as well as having room to purchase more under the contract.”

Champaign County also is paying $71.71 per ton to de-ice its roads with salt.

“We were able to renew our contract through the state from 2018, therefore our price increase was not nearly as substantial as the City of Urbana,” County Engineer Jeff Blue said.

Gustafson declined to comment why Urbana wasn’t able to renew its contract.

Urbana is currently searching for a new director of the public works department after longtime director Bill Gray retired at the end of October.

Three finalists were interviewed last Friday.

Road salt prices in Champaign, 2009-18

A look at how road salt prices have fluctuated in Champaign over the past decade.

Year Tons used Cost per ton
2009-10 4,200 $66.89
2010-11 4,800 $68.16
2011-12 2,336 $68.75
2012-13 2,964 $61.37
2013-14 7,183 $57.41
2014-15 5,183 $108.28
2015-16 2,325 $81.91
2016-17 3,434 $53.78
2017-18 4,388 $53.78
2018-19 4,494 $65.19
Average 4,131 $68.55