Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dry spell hits snow-removal services

Companies say season is disappointing, but not devastating

Express Staff Writer

John Balint piles snow in Ketchum on Tuesday using a loader. No snow has accumulated in the Wood River Valley in nearly four weeks, posing budget challenges for snow-removal services. Still, they said, they hope for a snowy February and March. Photo by Willy Cook

There’s been no real snowfall in almost four weeks in the northern Wood River Valley—certainly nothing worth bringing out the powder boards for, and nothing worth plowing.
    A series of storms in December laid a strong base on Bald Mountain and in backyards across much of the valley, but no significant snowfall has been recorded in Ketchum by the National Weather Service since Jan. 10.
    As a result, some companies that do snow removal say they’re finding other ways to keep busy, and are thanking their lucky stars that they don’t rely on snowplowing to make a living.
    “No one is really happy with it, but it’s normal,” said John Balint, general manager for Evergreen Landscaping.
    Unlike on the East Coast and Midwest, where most plowing companies charge clients per season for snow removal, most local companies work on a per-plow basis, meaning they only get paid when it snows.
    “We don’t do too much [seasonal contracts] around here because the snow fluctuates too much,” said Steve Vasher, director of sales and marketing at All Seasons Landscaping.
    In other words, if the valley has a big snow year, a company could lose a lot of money if it had signed contracts assuming the snow would be less.
    Balint said that so far his plows have been out six times in Ketchum and about 10 times north of Ketchum and near the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters. That’s less than half of what he needs for the winter in order to break even, he said, considering the costs of converting his landscaping trucks to snowplows and paying his employees.
    Jeff Coupe, owner of Coupe’s Sun and Snow in Hailey, said he’s plowed only three times this season, but he focuses on the area between East Fork Road mid-valley and to south of Hailey.
    “If they plow the street, I plow,” he said. “If the city has to plow the streets, we have to plow the driveways.”
Both Coupe and Balint said somewhere between 3 and 4 inches of fresh powder is the trigger point for plowing—an amount of snow that hasn’t come to the valley since Jan. 10, when 6 inches fell in Ketchum.
Coupe said the snow-removal service loses him money most years, but that he thinks it helps him retain summer customers if they can get both landscaping and snow removal with him.

“No one is really happy with it, but it’s normal.”
John Balint
Evergreen Landscaping

    “I think I would lose summer business if I stopped plowing,” he said. “There’s attrition every year, but you don’t want to contribute to that by not being there to do their driveway.”
    Balint said he also hasn’t gotten as many calls for Evergreen’s roof-cleaning or ice-dam-removal services this year, as the snow that fell in December and January has not been enough to pose problems for homeowners.
    “If you don’t get a good 4 to 6 feet of snow by January, you don’t have roofs to shovel and you don’t have ice dams to clean,” he said. “You’re not going to have much work. With snow like we’ve had so far, we haven’t had a lot of calls.”
    Vasher said his business survives by budgeting based mostly on revenue from spring, summer and fall landscaping work, with minimal revenue from plowing services.
    “A lot of our staff is on call in the winter, so you don’t have your entire payroll going out every week,” he said. “That lessens the blow. The mechanics are going through things and starting to prepare for spring.”
    Balint, too, said his employees are mostly on call, but that he tries to give each of them anywhere from eight to 16 hours a week on maintenance projects.
    “It’s nothing huge, but we’ll have something going on every day,” he said.
    The companies say that this year has been disappointing, but not unusual—nothing like the low-snow winter of 2006. Despite the dry spell, all three men said they are counting on more snow in February and March, which generally yields six to 10 more plow days per year.
    “It’s nothing horrendous,” Vasher said of the season. “We’ll survive. We’ll just make it work.”

Kate Wutz:

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