January 31, 2011

Snow removal budgets stretched thin

Union Leader Correspondent
REGION -- With a January of near-nonstop winter weather -- and another storm brewing this week -- town snow removal budgets are feeling the pinch.
“Our crews have been basically working nonstop since the first storm in January,” said Derry Public Works Director Mike Fowler on Friday. “It seems like one never-ending storm because as easy as it may look on the first day of a storm, we’re out in advance of the storm and out for the following days cleaning and pushing back snowbanks.”
Fowler estimates that he has spent about $450,000 – or 75 percent – of his $600,000 winter maintenance budget this season. That money is supposed to last until June, he said.
Salem is already just $8,000 shy of overspending its snow budget, just one month into the town’s new budget cycle, said Salem Public Works Director
 Rick Russell.
Since Jan. 1, Russell said Salem has spent $492,000 of its $500,000 budget. This month alone he said Salem has seen 42 inches of snow, just two inches short of the snow total for all of last season.
“It seems like everything has been coming since the day after Christmas,” Russell said. “Our guys have had very little rest and it seems like
 they’ve had only two or three days off because when it stops snowing, we’re not done.”
In Windham, Highway Agent Jack McCartney said he is about halfway through his $168,000 budget for snow plowing services and two-thirds of the way through his $85,000 sand and salt allotment.
 “There’s only been a few storms, but the problem is that because of the cold weather we are always out sanding and salting the roads,” McCartney said. “They were so close together and there have been so many single-digit days that there’s no melt. Usually there’s a January thaw, but January’s over and we don’t have a thaw to help us out.” 

McCartney said large snow accumulations in the winter can also lead to flooding and drainage issues through the spring. 
“One thing leads to another and that’s generally the stuff that hurts even more than when you have a lot of storms,” he said. “It kills our budget.” 
Windham’s winter maintenance budget has been stable for the past three years, McCartney said, and when he reaches that limit, he must makes cuts in other areas of the highway department budget. 
Fowler said that Derry’s past practice has been to similarly find other areas to cut back in the wider public works department. 
“Sometimes with the repaving of a road or something like that that we purposefully wait to get through the winter season before we actually do them in April or May, just in case,” Fowler said. 
Fowler said the town could also ask the council to release reserve funds to support winter maintenance efforts. 
In Salem, where the town has a second deliberative session in March, town officials can ask voters for more winter maintenance money as needed. 
Salem Finance Director Jane Savastano said the town has asked for more snow funding just once in the past six years, with a request of an extra $400,000 in 2008. Last year, voters removed $200,000 from the $900,000 winter maintenance allotment after a season of limited snowfall, she said. 
As a last resort, Savastano said selectmen could take money from a snow trust fund to put toward the winter maintenance budget. 
But though money is tight, officials say no changes are made to maintenance protocols. 
“We change nothing and we will not compromise public safety,” Russell said. “People ask what we will do to cut back and save money, but you don’t start cutting back when you’re out of money. If there’s a way to do that safely, we’d be doing that all along.” 

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