High salt prices posing tough winter for private plowing contractors

RAVENNA, Ohio - As the snow begins to pile up in northeast Ohio, private contractors are preparing to do their best to keep parking lots at churches, businesses, schools and other places open. They're also hoping to keep the walkways safe.

They say they will need large quantities of salt.

Many of these private contractors buy their salt in bulk from the same suppliers as cities and townships across the state.

Multiple communities said they are having difficulty getting the salt they need this year and that the salt they can get delivered is, in many cases, at least twice the price they paid last year.

The private contractors said they feel as though they are at the bottom of the priority scale and so the challenges that many communities are facing are magnified for them.

"If ODOT was paying $30 a ton and we were paying 60 this year, we are paying two-and-a-half to four times on top of the 60," said Dave Yost, part owner of a Ravenna plowing and asphalt repair company.

That is, if they can get the salt they need at all.

"It's the same for everyone really. You call and you hope to get a number, to get on the scale and get a truck in there, and they are saying you are out seven days and you call back in seven days. And, you are out another seven days, you keep calling, they keep putting you out and you cant get it," said his nephew Zach Yost.

The Yosts said there are companies delivering salt from overseas into the Cleveland area but it is more granular and there is more debris in it than the salt that is mined and supplied in Cleveland. It is also much more expensive.

They also explained that many of the contracts with their customers are negotiated and the price of clearing the lots is fixed.

Others can be adjusted but the contractors said that customers are not happy when the price of clearing their lots dramatically increases.

"You give them a price you can't go back and say 'oh, your price just doubled,' that's not how business works you know," said Rick Wise.

At the same time the contractors are trying to juggle their salt supply with their budget, they said their customers have a "zero tolerance" policy for how they want their lots to look.

Dave Yost describes it as wanting the lots to look like they do in August and when a snow event lingers they have to be prepared to go through a lot of salt.

Some contractors are using a brine, which combines magnesium, salt and potassium in a liquid, to stretch out their salt dollars but it's usefulness is somewhat limited.

The Yosts said they get their salt from Cargill, the same company in Cleveland from which many area cities and townships get their salt.

That includes Sagamore Hills Township where trustees earlier this week said they are salting only hills, curves and intersections trying to make what little salt they have left over from last year stretch into January which is the earliest they believe they can get their next delivery.

Even then Sagamore Hills Trustees said they expect to get only about half of what they need and their cost is about twice the $48 per ton they paid last year.

Cargill issued a statement to FOX 8 News saying,

"Generally, we are seeing more demand and less supply for road salt this winter season. While impacts vary county to county, overall customers and Cargill have less salt inventory stocked up due to last year’s harsh winter. At the same time, we are also permanently addressing a water leak in Cargill’s Cleveland mine that is lowering our salt production capacity for the 2018-19 winter season. Despite these factors, we are committed to providing salt to keep our roadways safe and are working as quickly as we can to safely mine and deliver salt to our customers."

The private contractors in Ravenna said they have each others backs and if one of them is running low on salt the others are willing to do what they can to pitch in and help if they have the means to do so.

But, with their cost and supply challenges combined with the expenses of paying their employees and maintaining their trucks, they worry that it is possible some of the smaller contractors might have a difficult time making ends meet.

"Most people are applying the same amount, they still need to take care of their customers and everything like that, but we will see as the season goes on if they can keep up with the price or if they are going to have to, you know, put down less or lose customers altogether," said Ray Stull.