Challenges Collecting Payments After Heavy Snowfall


Snow and ice management contractors dream of “the big storm.” They often wonder what it’s like to have to deal with an ongoing snowfall. They dream of all the money they will invoice out and how the profits will roll in. Some will give a passing thought to being tired after a few days of pushing the white stuff around a parking lot. In Erie, Pennsylvania, we get more than our fair share of snow as compared to most of the country. At the lakeshore, the average snowfall for a given winter season is just under 110 inches of snow. A few miles south of the airport, by the lakeshore where there is an increase of 900 feet in elevation, snowfall totals often exceed 250 inches, and once every few years it will exceed 350 inches. That is in the same vein as the Tughill Plateau in upstate New York.

This past Christmas Eve the forecast was for some lake-effect snow in the range of 7 inches, so when it began snowing no-one was overly concerned. Of course, we’ve been here before — numerous times. When we awoke on Christmas Day, it wasn’t snowing, so no one gave the snow a second thought. When the snow started up again, there was no concern. I can’t tell you how many Christmas Day storms we’ve seen in Erie during my 45 years living here.

By noon is was snowing hard — very hard. The snow was piling up, but the nice thing about it was that it was Christmas Day. Almost every commercial and retail property in Erie was closed for the holiday. As night began approaching, there was 2 feet of the white stuff on the ground. Not a big deal — we’ve been here before. It’s Erie. We’re accustomed to lake-effect snow. By the 11 p.m. news, things were starting to look a little bleak in the snow department. It was looking like the totals for this storm would approach, and possibly exceed, 3 feet. OK — that’s unusual. Surely it would stop overnight and life would go on.

However, upon awakening on Dec. 26, it became apparent this was going to be unusual. The national news programs were making mention of the 3-foot Christmas Day storm and the fact that some local records were beginning to fall. About lunchtime on Dec. 26 the city of Erie declared a state of emergency as the forecasters were now talking about totals approaching and exceeding 5 feet. All retail stores (including the mall) were closed and closures for Wednesday, Dec. 27, were being announced.

Local reports were telling us of snow totals 10 miles south of Erie being well under a foot of snow. The local radars showed a band of snow running right along the lakeshore. On the 26th, the surrounding suburbs declared a snow emergency, meaning only 4-wheel-drive vehicles or vehicles with chains were allowed on the roads.

The Christmas Day snowfall totaled 34 inches. The Dec. 26 snowfall totaled 26.5 inches. The last two days of December 2017 saw another 17-plus inches of snow hitting Erie. It continued snowing until New Year’s Eve, with 85 inches of snow accumulating for the holiday week and 121 inches of snow recorded for December 2017.

Make no mistake, the local contractors were getting their fill and were working almost nonstop throughout the event(s). However, it was evident that this particular snowfall could not have come at a better time, from a snow management perspective. It began on a holiday that found almost every commercial site closed for the holiday. The city’s declaration essentially forced another day of closures of most of the city. Cars were off the roads and the parking lots empty, allowing full clearing of the lots. I can just imagine plowing that kind of snow with cars stuck in parking lots and/or on the roads. What a nightmare that would have been.

And, for those who think all this was great for the plowers out there — think again. It was a lot of snow, requiring Herculean effort to clear commercial sites. Loaders were stacking and relocating snow for days afterward.

It might seem like a financial godsend to those on the outside, but the truth is that collecting the money come March and/or April will be another nightmare. Property managers and owners will start playing “let’s make a deal” when the invoices come due, complaining about how much money they got billed for the storm. They’ll want contractors to eat large percentages of the outstanding money because budgets were exceeded.

This will put a heck of a damper on the thrill of seeing all that snow and all those records being broken. I used to tell my snow management clients that nobody makes money on snowfalls that exceed a foot at a crack. This Christmas 2017 storm will not be a windfall for the snow contractors — and it could put more than a few out of business.