Under clear skies and sunshine yesterday, most of the 116 Carroll County roads workers were wrapping up a stint of 17 straight days, eager for their first day off after battling snow and ice for more than two weeks.
"We have not shut down for 17 days around the clock," said Benton Watson, director of the county's Bureau of Roads. "They haven't all worked the same hours, but most of them have been here, even the office staff."
For most members of Carroll's road crews, the next two-week pay period will include nearly 100 hours of overtime in addition to the regular 80 hours of pay. At time and a half, the average hourly pay of $13 jumps to $19.50.
"The money is good, when you get that check," Mark Groomes said yesterday morning as he filled the gas tank of a dump truck loaded with salt. "But after 17 days, a day off looks just as good."
The weather has put a major dent in the county roads budget, Watson said. In addition to the overtime pay and extra fuel costs, Carroll has used nearly 10,000 tons of rock salt, which costs the county about $37 a ton, and has ordered more. The past three days of snow and ice drained the county's $850,000 fund for cleaning up roads after storms.
"The budget?" Watson said yesterday. "It's gone. We were close to being out before this series of storms. Now I know we have overspent. That is why we have a contingency fund for these emergencies."
The spending started three months before the first snowflake fell Dec. 5. Preparing for and cleaning up after Tropical Storm Isabel in September took nearly $200,000 out of the storm fund.
Ted Zaleski, director of the Department of Management and Budget, said the county has a reserve fund of about $3 million. "Our ability to handle emergencies is OK, but there will be that much less money to roll over for next year," he said.
Watson does not plan to reduce service.
Carroll's 50 plow trucks, each with two-member crews assigned to established routes, will be out on the roads as soon as snow starts falling again, he said. By taking early action, crews hope to avoid a buildup of snow, he said.
Crews report to work prepared to stay until the precipitation stops and the roads are clear, but this was one of the longest stretches that Watson could recall in his nearly 30 years with the county.
"We can easily handle one storm a week, but this was just a long duration," he said. "It was really tough on people."
Tuesday night and yesterday morning proved strenuous for the crews, Watson said. "We salted early to keep the ice from bonding to the pavement, and then plowed through the night with hardly any breaks," he said. "Luckily, the freezing rain didn't last long, and it changed over to snow pretty quickly. Things were not nearly as bad as they could have been."
Most of the county's trucks can hold about 10 tons of salt, and a few can handle an additional five tons. During a storm, a driver and a helper are assigned to a truck for what can be a 12-hour shift.
Some trucks carry two drivers who take turns at the wheel. Every worker has scheduled off-the-road time and can take advantage of bunk facilities at the maintenance center and at locations throughout the county.
"Resting in a bunk is not the same as sleeping in your bed at home," Watson said. "Meals are catch as catch can."
During the storm this week, crews salted, plowed, refilled their gas tanks and truck beds, and tackled the roads again. They slept sporadically in bunks and grabbed meals whenever and wherever they could.
"It is hard on you. It drains you," Groomes said while filling his truck with gasoline for one more sweep of his route yesterday.
By noon, he would sign off and head for his home in Taneytown, hoping that he didn't have to plow his driveway.
"My family understands," Groomes said. "They are used to me working these hours."
After another sleepless night, Watson expected to be among the noon departures looking forward to a long nap and a home-cooked meal.
"We will have standbys on and the office staff, but most of the rest of us will be out of here by noon," Watson said.
But first, he took another quick tour of nearby roads. When a dispatcher paged him to ask when he might be back, he replied, "How about April?"