Local Government

Some McHenry County governments feeling road salt pinch

Some local entities without bid to replenish supply on hand

Highway and public works departments statewide are scrambling to secure supplies of road salt after learning that a number of them were dropped from Illinois' annual bid.

Summer is typically when local governments buy salt by the ton through the Department of Central Management Services, the state agency in charge of procuring supplies in bulk to lower the cost. But CMS told a number of governments statewide about a week and a half ago that no salt companies submitted bids to resupply them.

If they can't find vendors, next winter could be a slippery one for drivers in McHenry County and elsewhere.

A likely reason for the shortage is the demand part of the law of supply and demand – it's way up, given that the brutal winter we just survived stretched salt supplies not just in the Midwest, but in much of the country as well.

The McHenry County Division of Transportation is in a good position to keep its 550 lane miles clear for the start of winter, Maintenance Superintendent Ed Markison said. It has 5,500 tons on hand at its rural Woodstock headquarters, and a typical winter can range between 8,000 and 10,000 tons. But it was one of the governments that did not get a bid.

"It's definitely a worry. I've been doing this for 23 years and we can never predict what Mother Nature is going to bring us from year to year. The best we can do is try to be as prepared as possible," Markison said.

Unfortunately, Murphy's Law – anything that can go wrong will go wrong – can be as potent a force as the law of supply and demand. Local governments in McHenry and Lake counties were told by CMS in summer 2008 that it could not find bidders for their road salt needs, forcing them to scramble to find alternatives. The winter that followed was one of the snowiest since the National Weather Service started keeping records.

Increased demand, of course, not only makes salt or any product harder to get, but also increases the cost, Crystal Lake Public Works Director Victor Ramirez said. The city, like the county, did not get a bid.

"Those locations that did get [bid] offers were told that the per-ton price went up to between $70 and $140 a ton. Last year we paid $59," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said the $257,000 the city budgeted for road salt has fortunately given it the wiggle room to cover cost increases. Crystal Lake has about 1,000 tons on hand for its 165 lane miles, and anticipates needing 4,000 tons to get through next winter.

The City of McHenry also found itself without a road salt bidder and presently only has about 500 tons, but the city will be able to get at least 2,400 tons from its supplier last year, Public Works Director Jon Schmitt said. The contract the city signed in 2013 contained a renewal clause that allowed McHenry to secure the amount this year, at a price not to exceed 5 percent more than the $58.96 per ton it paid.

That would give the city just less than the 3,000 tons it predicts it will need next winter to keep its 125 lane miles clear, but the city still wants a cushion, Schmitt said.

McHenry is knocking down its bid from 1,600 to 1,000 tons as CMS is preparing to send out a second bid for any of the governments who did not get any salt.

McHenry County last week submitted a bid on its own, independent of CMS, pricing out quantities of 5,000, 8,000 or 10,000 tons, according to county records. Crystal Lake also decided to bid for 4,000 tons on its own and not go through CMS.

Going solo may give the city more flexibility and improve its odds, Ramirez said.

"We also felt that possible requesting on an individual basis, and for a much smaller amount than the [CMS] aggregate, we may have a better shot at being selected by one of the firms and possibly getting a good bid," Ramirez said.

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