Thanks to the heavy snowfall in January, some region cities already have paid out more than $200,000 in overtime pay and used more than 8,400 tons of salt to help keep the streets clean.
Salt orders are placed ahead of the winter season, and the price is set by the state. But once a street department runs out, it can't go back to order more, said Hammond Public Works Director Gary Gleason.
"Salt works perfectly above 32 degrees. When it goes under 32 degrees, it slows down. And when you get into single-digit degrees, it doesn't work," Gleason said. "So you have to start rationing it."
Trucks are dispensing tons of salt to melt ice on the streets, but there's a catch at subzero temperatures.
"Some people will complain that we didn't salt the roads," Gleason said. "Well, yes we did, but it was too cold. Once it started warming up, the roads were clear to the pavement. That's the salt, it's not because of plowing."
East Chicago has used 600 tons of salt this year to cover 85 miles of road, said Monsie Corsbie, director of Public Works in East Chicago. She said her department likes to keep about 2,500 tons in reserve.
Hammond has used about 5,000 tons of salt to day on 275 miles of road. It ordered 5,700 tons for the year, but had an additional 3,500 left over from last year.
With the largest area to cover, Gary General Services has used almost all of its annual order of 2,800 tons to salt 434 miles of road. Gary Chief of Staff Richard Leverett said the city has about 500 tons from 2012 but also has another 1,200 set to come in from the state.
This winter, Gary has paid more than $50,000 in overtime to keep the roads clear.
General Services has eight trucks for everyday operation, four large plow trucks and four Ford F-250s. During heavy snowfall, plows are put on 12 additional trucks from other city departments.
When at least 2 inches have accumulated with continued snowfall, Gary splits the 22-member staff in half and runs 12-hour shifts. The shifts rotate until snow removal is done.
Gary's fleet has at maximum 20 trucks, Leverett said.
"When we're in the midst of the storm, until it's completely cleaned up, we don't come out of that schedule," he said.
In East Chicago, the Public Works Department's fleet consists of 13 trucks with a 5-ton carrying capacity and 11 1-ton trucks.
East Chicago drivers run on 16-hour shifts, with 12 to 13 employees out plowing the street at any given time. Afterward, staff is expected to rest for eight hours before going back to work.
As of Friday, East Chicago had spent just short of $80,000 on overtime pay since the New Year's blizzard.
Hammond has paid $80,000 in overtime so far. That's roughly the same spent for all of 2012. In 2011, an unusually mild year, the city paid out $60,000 in overtime.
In extreme situations, street departments may find help from outside contractors, businesses or neighboring communities.
During the most recent storm, Portage Mayor James Snyder offered four snowplows between 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. to help clear snow in Gary.
Hammond's fleet includes 18 dump trucks, three 1-ton pickups and various standard pickups. A staff of 60 works nonstop until city streets are clear.
"Even our office manager, the lady who takes care of our paperwork, she leaves her desk and heads out with a plow truck when it's a full call-out," Gleason said.