By Bill Cantwell and Mike LaBella, Staff Writers
---- — HAVERHILL — When snow fell during the morning commute on Jan. 16, parents complained that the city failed to close schools for the day.
Officials said no snow was falling just before buses took to their routes. By the time they were on the road and snow was making streets slippery, it was too late to get sanding trucks out in time. More than a dozen vehicles, including a school bus, crashed within about an hour due to the slippery conditions.
To keep this from happening again, Mayor James Fiorentini said that when a snow or ice storm is predicted to hit at commuter time, the city will station sanding trucks around Haverhill so they can hit the streets quickly when the precipitation begins.
When the mayor announced the plan this week, he also said he is concerned residents might see the trucks parked on the side of roads and doing nothing, and wonder why.
“We’ve changed our procedures,” Fiorentini said. “We’re going to station 10 sanding trucks around the city to get the sand down more quickly, although we do expect complaints by people who might see trucks parked and not doing anything.”
The mayor said the city has staged snow plows in strategic areas in advance of a storm for years. That has resulted in complaints by residents.
“When people see a bunch of plows (parked at the side of the road) they start calling,” Fiorentini said.
The city’s Highway Department has suffered from an image problem in recent years, with criminal charges against former longtime Highway Superintendent James Flaherty and his son Kevin, a former inspector at the department. They were both found guilty of charges related to them using department resources for personal gain in their private paving business.
In the wake of the scandal, the public’s faith in the Highway Department and how it was run was shaken. The city installed GPS devices in department trucks to track them. Several department workers were disciplined for using sick time or being on the city clock while they were working on private Flaherty paving jobs.
So, as the mayor stations Highway Department trucks around the city prior to storms, he said he wants the public to know why they are parked there.
The snow had just begun to fall the morning of Jan. 16 when parents started calling city officials to ask why school wasn’t cancelled.
“We got a lot of complaints about school not being cancelled, but that’s not my decision,” Fiorentini said. “We’ve recommended to the School Department that they prescribe to a weather service that we use and is just for our city. We can share our advice and we do, but we want them to access the same real time data that we access. I know there were complaints, but when you have a commute storm, you always get complaints.”
The mayor said that in addition to stationing sanding trucks in strategic areas, the city hired a private company this year to plow the Golden Hill area around Golden Hill Elementary School and Nettle Middle School. Poor conditions in that hilly residential area during storms have been a source of many complaints from drivers.
“We get flooded with complaints to plow it and we’ll also make sure it’s sanded two or three times before school opens, as well the driveway at Pentucket Lake School,” Fiorentini said.
According to police, during the Jan. 16 storm, 27 car accidents were reported between 6:12 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. in Haverhill.