McKeesport mayor answers critics of emergency timing
Mayor Michael Cherepko is standing by his decisions related to the morning freeze that put McKeesport's salt shortage in the national spotlight on Monday.
Cherepko's timing in declaring a state of emergency has come under criticism, and questions regarding the city's salt supply brought the topic to the surface at Wednesday's council meeting.
“We'd been trying to get salt for the past several weeks,” Cherepko said. “Here we were on March 1 and March 2, and we still didn't have all of our salt in.”
The mayor made his declaration Monday at approximately 10:30 a.m. after a treacherous morning commute put city traffic at a standstill for hours.
“Unfortunately, we dealt with a lot of accidents, but fortunately there were none with serious injuries,” Cherepko said. “It was at that point that everyone realized how serious this was.”
Cherepko said the emergency could not be declared until city officials and public safety personnel understood the severity of what was happening.
Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery said the city could have done a better job of letting the public know how severe conditions had become.
“We'll agree to disagree on this,” Walker-Montgomery said. “But I think in the future we need to notify the residents immediately once we know something like we're out of salt so that they will stay home.”
Because McKeesport's salt supplies have been dwindling throughout the harsh winter, with small orders coming in place of a 400-ton order placed on Feb. 10, Cherepko said the weekend storm had posed no greater threat than previous snows.
If the city would declare a crisis with every pending storm, there would have been a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario by the time the ice had taken its toll, he said.
“We were in this situation four or five times this winter already,” Cherepko said. “If we would have notified people and told them to stay off the roads, it would have been unnecessary. Unless you had a crystal ball, there was no way of knowing that we would wake up (this time) and the whole city would be frozen.”
Because crews treated the city's main arteries and emergency routes on Sunday night, it was assumed that the lack of additional snow would have left conditions passable. Cherepko commended the city's public works staff and director Steve Kondrosky Sr. for stretching salt supplies and doing their best with unfortunate circumstances.
Cherepko drove around town Sunday night through Monday at 1 a.m. checking roadways that already had been plowed and salted and communicating with police.
“I hit every single ward in this city,” Cherepko said. “Little did we know that five hours later our entire city would be under ice, and that included all the roads we treated the day before.
“You don't know instantly that your entire city is under ice. It's based on your complaints, your calls coming in. It takes time before you realize it's everywhere.”
Once emergency personnel realized the severity of the hazard, Walker-Montgomery said the administration could have reached out to the media or used online resources to put out a warning, even if the state of emergency had not officially been declared.
“People were missing work. They were stuck in traffic,” she said. “There were a lot of things going on.”
While Walker-Montgomery took issue with the timeframe of the declaration, she commended city workers for coming to the public's aid in a time of confusion and crisis.
“When things hit the fan on Monday, our police and firemen responded immediately,” Walker-Montgomery said.
Haler Heights resident James Tomko asked Cherepko if the city was thinking of its budget when responding to winter weather all season.
“I think you're in a mode here of trying to save money at times, and it isn't working,” Tomko said.
Cherepko said Tomko's assessment is false, because public safety is of a greater concern than staying within budget on salt.
“We don't hesitate to pull the trigger on overtime,” the mayor said. “We have never not called out anyone during snow. This council pays the bills, and I can show you the overtime.”
Tomko questioned why other communities had clear roads and McKeesport appeared untouched.
Cherepko said McKeesport had a comparable amount of salt to what other municipalities had in stock, but the same product doesn't go as far with 105 miles of roadways to cover.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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