LINDEN — The race for the mayor’s seat may be months away but candidates are already starting to spar over issues, including snow removal.
Union County has seen its fair share of snow storms since the beginning of the year. However, the Feb. 5 storm left public works departments in every town struggling to remove more than 10 inches of heavy, wet snow topped off by up to a half-inch of ice or more.
Although residents in almost every town had complaints about how snow removal efforts went during and after this storm hit, in Linden elected officials took it to a new level.
Fourth Ward Councilman Derek Armstead, who announced in early January he will make another run for the mayor’s seat, sent out a statement criticizing how the DPW handled snow removal in his ward.
Saying the DPW’s effort was “horrendous,” Armstead demanded something be done before the next storm hits.
“Residents need to know that an immediate plan of action is in place to prevent this from happening again,” he said in a statement released a few days after the storm.
Armstead claimed residents had to pay to have snow removed from their cars and driveways after the DPW plowed city roadways in the 4th Ward, only to have city plows come by a second time and block them in again. Feeling helpless, Armstead said he ended up staying out until midnight to help people in his ward dig out.
The councilman blamed acting DPW Director Louis Scaldino for the botched plowing job in his ward, strongly advising the city replace the department head.
Armstead, a Democrat who has served on council for 20 years, ran for the mayor’s seat in 2010, narrowly losing to incumbent Mayor Rich Gerbounka, an independent. The mayor, who also decided to throw his hat in the ring for re-election, brushed off the councilman’s statement as merely an effort by Armstead to kick off his campaign.
“There was no reason to make this political,” Gerbounka said in an interview with LocalSource, pointing out the entire matter “could have been handled internally.” He also thought it was ironic that Armstead was the one complaining about the DPW.
“He’s the councilman that is over the DPW,” the mayor said, adding that since it is Armstead’s charge, he should be the one trying to come up with a better plan if one is needed, not complaining. Still, Gerbounka admitted the 4th Ward could have used a better approach to snow removal.
“Look, to be honest there was some need for improvement when it came to snow removal in the 4th Ward, but
the problem is we have lost so many
CDL drivers that we only have rookies
out there doing the snow plowing,” he said.
The mayor explained that seven years ago the city had plenty of experienced CDL drivers, or those holding commercial drivers license’s, but that changed because of the financial woes the city has had trying to stay under the state imposed 2-percent cap during budget time.
“What we have now are rookies trying to remove wet, heavy snow and yes, there is a need for improvement, but quite frankly we can’t afford to hire drivers with that kind of experience,” he said, adding that having a lack of experienced people “is a handicap.”
“Last year we came close to laying off a lot of police and firemen, so you know we can’t afford to hire new DPW people,” Gerbounka said, mentioning Armstead’s not the only one fielding calls from residents.
“I’m getting calls left and right, everyone wants their street custom plowed and we can’t do that,” the mayor added.
As for the driveways that were plowed in, Gerbounka argued it is impossible for city plows to stop in front of every driveway.
“Are you kidding me? No town stops in front of every driveway. They would never get the entire town plowed if they did,” Gerbounka said, which was echoed by other towns like Rahway, Union and Cranford.
According to DPW supervisors in these towns, crews manning snow plows have to move snow so they can clear primary roads and move on to secondary roads.
The town must ensure that emergency vehicles have a clear path in case of an emergency.
As for the job the DPW has done this winter, the mayor said because there has been one storm after another, residents and elected officials have to understand snow removal is no easy task.
“We have had six snow storms. These DPW workers are working 16-hour shifts, taking four hour breaks and coming back on and doing another shift,” Gerbounka said, explaining the city only has 90 DPW workers handling this task compared to the 120 they had in the past.
“We just can’t afford to have that many on staff anymore,” the mayor added.
Gerbounka also pointed out that when there is a wet, heavy snow with a cap of ice, there is more to worry about than whether your driveway is ploughed in by the DPW.
“During that storm we had one of our residents out shoveling drop from a heart attack but thanks to the fast response of city police and EMS, who were on the scene within minutes, the resident is now on the road to recovery,” Gerbounka said.
Another, though, was not as lucky. During the storm late last week, a 58-year-old resident was felled by a heart attack but was unable to be revived.