February 17, 2009

Hiring Freeze Reduces Winter Maintenance

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Thicker snow and signs warning of “No Winter Maintenance” observed across the Cornell campus this winter signify fewer routine salt and shovel maintenance on footpaths. Thanks to University-wide budget cuts, campus grounds maintenance is streamlining its operation. This results in less manpower and more work for each individual staff member.
[img_assist|nid=35199|title=Trudging to class|desc=Students walk past a winter maintenance sign posted on the pathway near the Andrew Dickson White House last Wednesday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“What we did this year was [to] make more of the sidewalks seasonal — that is, not open for winter maintenance,” said Donna Goss, communications specialist of the grounds department at facilities services. “Usually, we have more ground-folks in the winter on hand, but with the hiring freeze we have reduced personnel this time around, so we can’t keep everything open.”
The reduced operating budget on maintenance stems from the hiring freeze, which leaves the grounds department short on manpower. Goss stated that an “impact” would certainly result from the lack of availability of staff.
Cutbacks in maintenance are first seen in ancillary paths with parallel or easily accessible alternative routes. The grounds department claimed to have analyzed the travel times for different combinations of closed walkways in hopes of minimizing a pedestrian’s travel time through a certain area. Students, however, may still have to tread on neglected footpaths and dangerously icy stairs.
Along with footpaths, maintenance is being trimmed down on flower beds, planters and other less-traveled areas around campus.
These reforms have been in the works since the blizzard of 1993, when consolidation of limited grounds-keeping resources became a long-term priority in campus maintenance, according to Peter Salino, director of the grounds department.
“Although we can’t hire any more, we won’t be making any significant changes to our existing staff and equipment,” explained Salino. “There’s always more work than what we can do in a given day.”
The campus is roughly divided into four areas and maintained by a fleet of eight plowers. Work typically begins at around 5 a.m. for maintenance crew that serves a single, day-long shift. On a snowy stretch, however, staff must often work overnight to clear roads and parking lots before dawn.
“These guys usually work from the morning till three or four in the afternoon, go home and get some rest and come back [at] around nine or 10 to plow snow all night,” Salino said. “There are so many variables in this job, especially dealing with snow. It needs a new game plan every single time.”
Maintenance during periods of continuous or sporadic snow is especially difficult, according to Salino, as the availability of staff on shift at any given time is sparse.
Salino also mentioned that grounds-keeping and plowing are carefully orchestrated to avoid interference with student life or activities. For example, early-morning work near dormitories and athletic areas are avoided.
While maintenance is being cut short all over campus, the quality of maintenance in certain areas in central campus and during high-profile events — such as graduation — will be maintained.
To accommodate budget cuts and Skorton’s sustainable directive, the number of “naturalized areas” — which include flower beds composed of hardy indigenous plants requiring less maintenance than traditional planted areas — is also to be increased to 12 by the end of summer, according to David Cutter, a landscape architect at the grounds department.
“These areas emphasize long-term, lasting aesthetics over more fragile and temporary ones,” Cutter said. “Because they need less water, mulch and sunlight, they’re ideal for viewing year after year.”
Salino also said that the grounds department will be expanding low-maintenance meadows and reducing mulching for many of the planted areas around campus.