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Jim Kenyon: Lebanon Schools Snowplower Nickeled-and-Dimed Inch by Inch

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

In 1995, Kevin McNamara started his own landscaping and lawn maintenance business — an ambitious undertaking, considering he had just graduated from Lebanon High School. But McNamara made it work. Over the years, the business evolved into MAK’s Trucking and Excavation. McNamara and his wife, Clara, who handles the business side of the operation, now have a construction yard full of dump trucks and other heavy equipment in Meriden.

To supplement his “dirt work,” McNamara, now 40, took on commercial snowplowing jobs in the winter. McNamara and his small crew plow Kimball Union Academy’s parking lots. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation hires him to maintain a stretch of Route 120.

The McNamaras hoped to grow their business a bit more. In 2015, they signed up to plow and salt the Lebanon School District’s half a dozen parking lots.

Two years into a three-year contract, however, the McNamaras informed Lebanon school officials in July that they’d had enough. (The contract allowed either side to opt out with a 30-day notice.)

“For this not to work was disheartening,” said Clara McNamara. “We really wanted to see it through.”

I don’t blame them for quitting.

“It was a nightmare for two solid winters,” Kevin McNamara told me.

In October 2015, I wrote about the new regime at SAU 88 deciding — with School Board approval — to change the way the district paid for maintaining school parking lots in the winter.

No more paying a private contractor on an hourly basis, which was the practice for nearly 20 years. Forget a multi-year contract with a fixed price, which is how Hanover schools do it.

Lebanon would pay by the inch. Four contractors submitted bids. MAK’s was the winner — or so it seemed.

For a storm that dropped 1 to 4 inches on the city, MAK’s would earn $1,010. If a few more flakes fell to drive the snowfall total to 4.1 inches, the price increased to $1,270. When the amount of new snow reached 8.1 inches, the bill jumped to $1,595.

SAU 88 Business Administrator Tim Ball told the School Board’s finance and facilities committee that paying by the inch was “pretty standard” in the corporate world.

But as the McNamaras learned, the system works only if both sides play by the same rules — or ruler.

Exhibit A: McNamara and his crew cleaned up after an ice storm, only to find out later that it was a “no pay.” Under the contract, the McNamaras wouldn’t be compensated for any storm of less than an inch. School officials had measured this particular storm at three-quarters of an inch.

Kevin McNamara argued that not clearing the ice left parking lots more treacherous for students, teachers and visitors. “You can’t just salt it,” he told me. “All it does is freeze up again. Then it’s a mess.”

So “we plowed it,” he said, wanting to avoid what’s known in the snow removal business as “slips, trips and falls.”

Although he wouldn’t give me a dollar figure, McNamara said he suffered a “substantial loss” over the two winters for plowing more frequently than the contract called for.

Last week, Dana Arey, the school district’s facilities director, told me that was news to him. “We might have had disputes over whether a storm was 3 inches or 5 inches, but I thought we had a very good working relationship,” Arey said. “Without a doubt, they did an excellent job.”

For the 2015-16 winter — mild by Upper Valley standards — MAK’s received $30,857 for plowing and salting, according to school district records. Last winter, which was more typical, the bill came to $75,790. (Before signing the contract with MAK’s, Lebanon’s snowplowing bill had averaged about $70,000 annually in recent years.)

Arey relied on a snow gauge outside SAU headquarters in West Lebanon and measurements taken at Lebanon Municipal Airport to determine payment. But by the end of last winter, it had become a battle of dueling videos (each side shot their own) to show how much — or how little — snow had fallen.

After receiving a bill for a 1- to 4-inch storm, Arey emailed Clara McNamara that the “camera footage clearly shows that there was little or no additional snow accumulation after 6:20 Saturday morning and that it was melting on contact once the driveways were salted. The data does not support the billing of an additional storm. As such, we will not pay for it.”

Apparently, Lebanon school officials think this is good business.

“Our method for paying for snowplowing worked very well the past two winters,” Arey emailed me. “We feel that it served the district very well and was financially responsible to the budget (and) taxpayers.”

Watching out for taxpayers is commendable. But it’s also important to treat people fairly. Plowing snow is a tough job that requires going out at all times of night in the worst weather conditions.

“They knew what they were getting into,” Arey said. “We didn’t change the rules in the middle of the game.”

I agree the McNamaras might not have gone into the deal with eyes wide open. This was their first pay-by-the-inch contract. Call it snow blindness.

But I’m not sure nickel-and-diming a small local contractor is the way to go. In Lebanon’s annual $42 million school budget, snow removal is a drop in the bucket loader.

This winter, Conkey Enterprises, of Canaan, will handle the job. Surprisingly — or maybe not — Conkey was the sole bidder.

I guess word does travel.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.