June 24, 2018
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Winterless winter? For good or bad, it’s not over till it’s over

By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — While a winter marked by very little winter weather may have some Mainers morose — think snowmobilers, skiers and those who ice fish — that’s not the case for many of the bean counters who work for state, county and local governments.

Collectively, local, regional and state governments budgeted many millions of dollars for clearing roads and highways of snow and ice this winter. Between buying small mountains of sand, salt and other road grit and figuring how to pay for thousands of collective hours of overtime for snowplow drivers, a lot of taxpayer money was set aside to prepare for a winter that so far hasn’t happened.

So, very little snow is a good thing for taxpayers, right?

Maybe not.

“Everyone thinks because we haven’t had major storms that we’re saving a lot of money. Not true,” said Matt Oakes, a public works foreman for the city of Bangor. “The little storms cost as much as the big storms. We still have to put down the same amount of material. As of two weeks ago, the number of storms this winter matched the number of storms last winter.”

No budget savings? Not true, says Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin, who sees the lack of snow as a budgetary blessing for the Washington County community.

“It’s helped with our budget, and it’s saved us a lot of money,” he said. “We have an on-call plow driver who we haven’t had to use much, and what we budgeted for fuel we’ve barely touched. I know the snowmobile folks won’t like me saying this, but I’m enjoying it.”

Michelle Beal, Ellsworth’s city manager, said the lack of snow has helped the city to stay on track with its snowplowing budget, which took a beating last winter.

“Last year at this time we were at 148 percent over budget, given the winter,” she said Wednesday. “This year, at the same time, we’re at 50 percent of budget.”

On a statewide level, the Maine Department of Transportation budgeted $27 million to deal with the materials and paycheck costs of this winter’s snow and ice removal. So far, MDOT has spent $9 million in sanding, salting and personnel costs inherent in plowing the 8,000 miles of roadway it watches after, utilizing its fleet of 400 vehicles and 900 drivers.

“Last year at this time there had been 37 storms. Now, we’re at 15,” said Brian Burne, an MDOT highway maintenance engineer.

Burne cautioned, however, “What people need to understand is that the 2007-08 winter was one of the worst on record, and it didn’t hit until late.”

Or, as Yogi Berra might put it: “It ain’t over ’til l it’s over.”

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