Most Forest Parkers count themselves lucky to have some of the best snow removal service around. Snowplows run all night and day, clearing the streets (where cars aren’t allowed overnight, so even parking spots get plowed out, eliminating the need for “dibs”).
Alleys are cleaned. Sidewalks often are cleared too by village-owned bobcats, and it’s not unusual to drive from Forest Park to other nearby suburbs and notice the stark contrast between Forest Park’s cleared roads and the slippery streets you’ll encounter elsewhere.
This winter has been no exception; a large amount of snow in the past weeks has brought out the snowplows and salt, the Facebook comments lauding Public Works Director John Doss and his staff for the excellent work they do in inclement weather.
But behind the scenes, the public works department is working even harder to provide the service the town has come to expect. The fleet of trucks has been deteriorating for years, decades even, and officials are starting to publicly talk about the problems.
During the recent snow clean-up, the fleet was down by two trucks.
At the Feb. 8 village council meeting, Commissioner Jessica Voogd commended public works on the great job they’d done with the recent snow fall. But, she said, she “wanted to address a larger issue.”
Voogd said the department has been operating with a reduced number of staff “and with equipment that has long passed its useful life.”
She said that in 2019, when she took office, it soon became apparent to her that the public works fleet was in dire need of replacement.
How dire? According to Village Administrator Tim Gillian, several vital pieces of equipment need to be replaced, and he says he can see the cost reaching $400,000 to $500,000.
“As our finances begin to stabilize as we come out of the pandemic and our economy returns, we will look into bank loans or leasing to replace the equipment,” Gillian said in an email.
The problem, however, isn’t new. During the meeting, Voogd said “for 10 years, Director Doss has been asking to replace aging vehicles, only for the proverbial can to be kicked down the road. And I know the village’s finances have been an issue for a long time. And I understand that a lot of this equipment that we need to replace is expensive. But ignoring our fleet and not planning for the future, we’re finding ourselves in a really tough situation.”
A fleet management plan, Voogd said, is something that probably should have been started 10 to 15 years ago. Because it wasn’t, however, “today we’re facing ever-mounting maintenance costs, and the insurmountable task of needing to replace almost every vehicle.”
Voogd said she’s been working with Doss to identify a fleet management system that will suit the village’s needs, but it won’t be an overnight fix. “It’s going to take some time, ingenuity, some budgeting gymnastics and some patience,” Voogd said.
It’s important, Voogd said, that the public understands the situation so it’s clear what the challenges faced by the public works department are. Even with a fully functional fleet, she said, “nature can give us a little bit more than we can handle from time to time. So it may take a few days to catch up.”
Streets, she said, are the priority and will be done before the “extras,” like clearing sidewalks and alleys.
“In spite of everything … they’re continuing to deliver a level of service that’s above and beyond that of many other communities,” said Voogd. She added: “And as we deal with a heck of a lot of snow, and a subpar fleet of vehicles, I just asked our residents to have a little empathy. And I also asked you to do what Forest Park does best, which is we take care of each other. So check in on your friends, your neighbors … Every little bit helps.”
At the Feb. 22 village council meeting, Commission Ryan Nero spoke about the situation as well.
“We are moving forward,” Nero said. “Commissioner Voogd and I and Director Doss are looking at taking a deep dive into our equipment … and really coming up with some real numbers.” The goal, he said, is to ensure “the public works department can maintain the level of service that our residents have grown to love.”