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Lessons From This Winter
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Minnesota Community Living March/April 2011

Lessons From This Winter

By Steve Hoogenakker, Concierge Landscape Environments

Besides the Metrodome collapse, surely a ploy to get a new stadium, HOAs have found this winter to be one they won’t soon forget. So what really happened behind the scenes? What can we learn from it and what does the future hold?

First, let me say that CICs are a special group of customers to "Snow Fighters.” The vast majority of CICs pay contractors a set monthly fee. From the CIC side, budgeting is the main reason. From the contractor’s side, monthly accounts allow a contractor to have equipment and personnel ready over the winter months.

This was a strange winter. With the first snowfall around mid-November, there were contractors not ready for the snow. After Halloween in 1991, there was no excuse to be unprepared this late into the season. The turf wasn’t frozen yet and a lot of sites weren’t staked yet. I saw plenty of sod rolled up at the end of finger streets that will have to be fixed this spring. We had a high number of regular snowfalls up until the "Snonami” of 17 inches on December 10 – the fifth heaviest snowfall in Minnesota history! Many associations did not get the service they expected during this event. There were some obscure reasons why this was the case. We’ll talk about the idea of expectations later in the article.

I’m sharing the following so that thoughtful people can make better decisions for the next snow contract. There was no good reason for a contractor to be unprepared, but many were caught unawares. Insight about what happened behind the scenes will help you make better decisions in the future.

  1. Associations have been built to maximize use of the land. This means crowded drives, tight sidewalks with shrubs alongside. After the earlier snows, there was already minimal room to pile the snow, and 1 ½ feet of snow on a 20 x 40’ driveway means 1,200 cubic feet of snow. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is not enough room next to each drive for that much snow.
  2. A good contractor might have equal numbers of skid loaders and pickup trucks for associations. A plow blade on a truck is 29” high. When lifted, the blade gets to about 45”. When the plow trucks got out to the sites after the skid loaders had been through once, there was already 5-6 feet of compacted, icy snow. A truck trying to push more snow into these piles was running into an unmovable object and couldn’t find a place to place the snow. From a practical viewpoint and to the surprise of some contractors, their plow trucks were now useless. Half of the equipment was not going to help for the next month until payloaders and tractor snowblowers were brought in to make more room.
  3. The night of the big snowfall, temperatures had fallen drastically and winds had picked up making for very dangerous conditions for crews. The DOT and local counties had pulled their equipment for the remainder of the night. Many contracts have a clause that extends deadlines by the number of hours that the DOT is off the road. A bit of a surprising effect was getting shovelers to the sites. Why? Because they couldn’t get out of their own complexes and because they couldn’t get through on the highways. Only a fraction actually made it in. The guys doing the walks were actually pretty amazing, working for 12-20 hours sometimes. A few shovelers got in serious accidents trying to get to the office or to the site.
  4. Money. As mentioned earlier, most sites needed big expensive equipment to come in to blow back piles. In many cases, this is not included in the contract because if the contractor were to bid in this big equipment every year for an event that happens once every 20 years, the pricing would be 50 percent higher for each of those 20 years.
  5. "The Fog of War.” After the second day of the big storm, confusing reports were coming in hot and heavy. A resident would contact a board member. The board member would contact the property manager not actually seeing the resident’s problem. The property manager would do the same with the contractor. The production manager would blindly communicate the same to the operator and by the time the operator got out there the situation was different than what was told to him by the boss. Nobody saw anything and you know who really paid that price? The board, the office staff at the management company and the office staff at the contractors, none of whom could actually perform the work that needed to be done. They were helpless to improve the situation except to take the phone calls, the heat and pass messages on.
  6. Subs and Temps. Because of the problems listed above, contractors had to use more subcontractors who weren’t familiar with the site and temp workers for shovelers.

I had a very nice interview with David Schultz of New Concepts Management. He had some ideas of how things should have been handled and lessons for the future. Remember earlier I said that the idea of expectations was the key? Well, it’s true. David and I agreed that managing expectations of the homeowners was of singular importance. Educating the homeowners about their expectations and understanding how it all works together makes for a happier association, board and property manager.

This doesn’t mean lowering your standards for the contractor. You can keep the same high expectations of your contractor and still manage expectations inside the CIC. Using this approach gives some cushion for everyone involved to keep the relationships solid. An example might be telling the residents that deadlines can be extended when windchills reach -25 below or when DOT pulls its equipment. The fact of the matter is, some contractors will have problems bringing people in. If we assume the contractor will have this difficulty, the only two choices are to prepare the expectations of the association ahead of time or prepare for many phone calls. A homeowner can ask to change the terms of the contract for next season, but reasonable clauses will reduce the daily calls once the homeowners understand. Nobody wants to see people who desperately need a paycheck to end up in the hospital anyway. 
What happens when all parties aren’t thoughtful and considerate of all sides when a contract comes up? I think the contractors who only think of their side will continually struggle with customer satisfaction and getting paid, and I think the CIC boards who don’t manage expectations and don’t have some cushion to protect all parties will continue to be disappointed with contractors and should plan on being in the middle of many future fights between contractors and homeowners.

Some of David’s recommendations for a better snow season:
1. Educate homeowners about the possible changes in response time and extra costs for hauling of snow after a large snowfall.
2. You’ve hired a multi million dollar snow removal company. Use that expertise you’ve paid for to help the board to make better decisions. 
3. The best snow contracts say "Contract Hauling available at these rates…” Make sure the contractor isn’t raising the bids to the association with hauling rates automatically figured in. That’s a waste of money for most years.
4. Where properties are functional, the board will ask "What are the costs going to be for the next 3-4 snowfalls?”
5. This winter was a wake up call for boards. If you live in an association cramped for space, you know it now. It’s just a matter of time before the big snow event affects you again.
6. Contractors and Boards, stop dealing with snow averages and start addressing future big snowfall events.
7. There needs to be better communication from the contractor to the board and manager.

I was amazed at the heroics and dedication of some board members. I was amazed by the hard work and 20 hour shifts that many people worked. Find a good contractor that you like to work with and be fair. Life is too short to work with contractors you don’t like or can’t trust. This simple principle can take stressful situations and make them pleasant and rewarding again.

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