AUGUSTA — City officials have a multi-faceted plan to try to ensure things go better this winter as they battle to clear streets of snow and ice after frequent, large snowstorms.

Plans include pausing rubbish pickup during major storms so garbage truck drivers can drive plow trucks instead, hiring at least one retired driver and using city employees in other departments who have commercial drivers licenses as relief for plow truck drivers during storms.

In addition, they plan to contract out some parking lot plowing to free up city staff time for roads, get more assistance from city parks employees in removing snow from streets and sidewalks, delay the removal of piles of snow until city streets and sidewalks are plowed, and help public works employees get their commercial drivers licenses so they can drive plow trucks.

“I know everybody recognizes last year we struggled with personnel, and we were short on staffing,” Lesley Jones, public works director, told city councilors last week while describing the department’s aggressive efforts to increase the number of plow truck drivers and improve snow removal from city streets and sidewalks. “I don’t want to dwell on last year but I want to remind people we had several retirements, we had some Family Medical Leave issues, we had a bad bout with the flu at the same time that we had pretty intense snow.”

Jones said at one point, the city had “47 inches of snow in two weeks.”

“That’s really when we failed,” she said. “Because we did not have the resources to provide adequate service. And to not provide good services doesn’t make us feel any better than it makes anybody else.”

Staff departures left the city with seven vacant driver positions to fill over the summer.

Though the city is still looking for one more full-time, licensed, plow truck driver, and is seeking three seasonal licensed plow truck drivers, it has gained some new drivers since stepping up driver recruitment efforts. Those include two workers promoted in-house, former rubbish handler Manny Proctor and skilled laborer Justin Miller who were helped by the city and a state funding program to attend driving school and get their commercial drivers licenses. The city also hired drivers who saw the truck driving jobs posted on the marquee of the Augusta Civic Center, who will help plow the city’s 21 plow routes covering 154 miles.

Jones said the marquee has been one of the more successful efforts at attracting the attention of potential drivers, joining more traditional methods such as advertising and posting on social media.

New drivers, of course, bring a different set of challenges.

“So our big concern is we have seven new employees, and three or four of them have never plowed with a big truck before, and five or six of them don’t know the city,” Jones said. “So Jerry (Dostie, street superintendent) put together a pretty comprehensive training program. They’ve completed classroom training and now are doing in-the-field training. I know having plow trucks out with no snow on the ground (for training) has raised a few questions. But our goal is to put (a driver) out there in a plow truck so he gets the feel for the wing, the plow, the sander, and the traffic and moving around. It’s not the same as with snow on the ground, but it’s a start.”

Jones said city employees who already have commercial drivers licenses who are working in other departments, including one each who work at city center and the police department, offered to help fill the gaps during storms and relieve plow drivers, who are brought in to give the regular, full-time drivers some rest.

Parks department workers will also help make clearing city streets and sidewalks a higher priority than in the past. Jones said that means they’ll help clear city streets before clearing all snow from city parking lots and walkways. And the city will also contract out the plowing of parking lots at Lithgow Public Library, Buker Community Center and Augusta City Center to free up additional city staff time for roads.

Canceling rubbish collection when a major storm is expected should free up two drivers for plowing. Jones said, to notify residents of that change, the city will take out advertisements, and post on social media and on CTV 7 television, and will have a “rubbish hotline” people can call to see if rubbish collection has been canceled.

City plow trucks will now have GPS tracking devices in them, which Jones said will allow them to better track trucks and drivers, which could improve efficiency.

City Manager William Bridgeo said Augusta is far from alone in its struggles to find licensed plow truck drivers. He cited an article in an issue of Maine Townsman, the Maine Municipal Association’s magazine, which he said discussed the difficulties some municipalities have had finding plow truck drivers and other workers in the current labor market.

State Department of Transportation officials have also struggled to hire enough plow truck drivers recently.

Bridgeo said applicants may contact the city’s human resources department to apply for a job as a plow driver, or other city positions.

Dostie said it can take years for a plow truck driver to learn the intricacies of the job.

“It takes several years to really know all the runs,” he said. “We have 12 seasoned people, seasoned workers, and seven new ones. So we’re working hard to provide good service, and we’ll do the best we can.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj