By DAVE GOSSETT
STEUBENVILLE - State Rep. Jack Cera, has asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate the high cost of road salt as area communities attempt to buy the mineral for the winter months.
HALF FULL — The Steubenville salt barn on state Route 7 is half full as city officials consider their purchase options for more road salt as prices have dramatically increased. State Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, has asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate the high cost of salt. — Dave Gossett
The Bellaire Democrat said he has written a letter to DeWine citing salt prices that have tripled since last year.
"It is my understanding that local governments purchase salt through a consortium with the Ohio Department of Transportation which provides them a reduced rate. But the first attempt to bid for road salt through the consortium received no bids from salt companies. A subsequent bid request did get a proposed $105.35 per ton bid. This compares to $36.45 per ton price last year," Cera stated.
"Considering past issues with salt supplies and prices, I believe your office needs to take a look at this price increase for this year. This is not an isolated issue and will affect many local governments across the entire state. These high costs will put the public's safety at risk and severely affect the budgets of local governments as well as ODOT," stated Cera.
"The reason I took this action is because there was a problem with salt suppliers a couple of years ago. I think we need to take a look at the issue. And I have received an e-mail back from the attorney general's office saying they have forwarded my request to their anti-trust section for review. Prices have increased by nearly 300 percent and that raises a lot of concerns for local governments," Cera declared.
"I spoke to Wintersville Mayor Bob Gale who is concerned about the price and the quality of salt his village may receive. The lower quality salt doesn't last as long. Our smaller communities with tight budgets will be facing some tough decisions if we have another hard winter," warned Cera.
"Just like our local officials, I too, have genuine concerns that this increase will severely impact the safety of the public during the winter. It will also impact the budgets of the local governments, limiting future road projects, "said Cera.
Cera said he is hopeful that the letter to DeWine will spark an investigation soon so that if there is any impropriety, the matter can be resolved before winter hits its peak.
According to assistant Jefferson County Engineer Andy Bryan, the cost of treating salt and ice accounts for about 44 percent of the winter operating budget.
Bob Baird, Steubenville maintenance and repair superintendent, said the city is exploring all its options for buying salt.
"We do have salt in our salt bin from last year but (we) need to purchase an allotment and prepare for the winter," he said. "We have participated in the state of Ohio program in the past, but the last word I received from the Ohio Department of Transportation was 25 of the state's counties either did not receive a bid for salt or the bids were so high they were rejected. This is not a problem just for our area. This is a problem across the state and throughout the Midwest and Northeast. We are continuing to explore all of our options and are continuing to make plans for the winter."
Steve Faulkner, ODOT spokesperson in Columbus, said state salt bins were full going into last winter. The state had 162,000 tons of salt but the relentless ice and snow last winter resulted in the bins being dangerously low.
"ODOT went through two winters' worth of salt in Ohio in one season," Faulkner said. "This was one of the few winters where we ended with no salt. Even the suppliers were drained."
ODOT officials recently opened the winter salt bids and Faulkner said officials anticipated the cost would be higher.
"We know we are going to pay more this year but we will pursue the lowest cost," he said.
"This is not an issue specific to Ohio. We are seeing these prices throughout the Midwest. We all had a terrible winter," he said.
Central Salt is the only company to bid on providing salt to Jefferson and Columbiana counties. The salt is mined in Brazil and Mexico and then shipped on barges up rivers to Monaca, Pa.
Faulkner said ODOT will meet with the local communities to see what can be done about the prices, and he added smaller communities will feel more of an impact because of smaller budgets.
(Gossett can be contacted at email@example.com. Mark Law contributed to this story.)