Winter weather putting a dent in Maine snow removal budgets

Partly framed by bowed trees still heavy with ice, a truck plows snow from a street in a Machias neighborhood Thursday, Dec. 26.
Tim Cox | BDN
Partly framed by bowed trees still heavy with ice, a truck plows snow from a street in a Machias neighborhood Thursday, Dec. 26. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 04, 2014, at 1:02 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 04, 2014, at 5:08 p.m.

Winter weather has taken a toll on snow removal budgets in some communities that have received above-average amounts of snowfall so far.

However, officials in affected communities generally are not too concerned yet, they say, because spending on snow removal operations has a way of averaging out over the course of the season.

Northeast Maine has been particularly hit hard by the onset of winter. According to data provided by the National Weather Service, the top five areas reporting the highest accumulations of snow so far are located in that portion of the state — four in Aroostook County and one in Washington County. Accumulations reported by the weather service were as of Dec. 31.

Presque Isle is leading the chase with more than 57 inches of snow. The city normally only averages about 35 inches of snow by the end of December.

Caribou was a close second with 55 inches, well above its average of 36 inches; December was the fourth snowiest on record for Caribou.

No. 3 is the town of Topsfield in northeast Washington County with 54 inches. Topsfield also has the distinction of being Maine’s snowiest spot for the month of December with nearly 51 inches, according to Todd Foisy, a science and operations officer with the National Weather Service in Caribou. In fact, 54 inches is a record high accumulation to date for Topsfield, although the National Weather Service has only been collecting data for that area for 13 years.

Rounding out the top five were Fort Kent with 46 inches (average is 32 inches) and Houlton with 44 inches (average is 33 inches).

The nearest any of the other top four came to a record accumulation as of Dec. 31 was Houlton, where the high mark of 54 inches in 1989 eclipsed 2013 by 10 inches, and Presque Isle, where the record high was 70 inches in 1951, a difference of 13 inches compared to 2013.

The high snowfall accumulations have not been limited to the northeast, however. Portland has received more than 30 inches of snow, nearly double its average of 16 inches, and Bangor has received 29 inches, 11 inches above average.

Caribou’s spending on labor for snow removal already is over budget, reported city manager Austin Bleess this week. “We’re also over on some of the other things,” he added, such as de-icing.

The city operates on a calendar year budget and overall for 2013 “we’ll be OK,” he said. A calendar year budget “can be more difficult,” noted Bleess, because spending for snow removal is spread over two budgets. Trying to allocate spending over two budget cycles “always makes it more interesting,” he said.

“We definitely keep an eye on it. You have to go out there,” he said and reduce spending in other areas, such as summer road maintenance, if need be.

“It hasn’t impacted us yet,” said Mike Bosse, town manager for nearby Fort Fairfield. “We’ve gone out more times, and we probably spent more money.” However, over the entire winter season, spending for snow removal “will average out,” he predicted.

So far, he has spent about double what he normally would for labor and diesel fuel, reported Fort Fairfield public works director George Watson, and the city also has used more sand and salt than usual.

If he goes over budget for snow removal for the season, he will try to reduce spending for road maintenance in the spring and early summer, said Watson. “Because I’ve got to make up that loss.”

He has talked to officials in Presque Isle who indicated they were in a similar position, said Watson. “They’re about in the same boat that I am. … But we’re all hoping by April it all balances out.”

The recent weekend ice storm “certainly impacted” Bangor’s spending for snow removal, said public works director Dane Wardwell. Spending for overtime “took a hit,” he said, because employees were on the road from Friday night through Tuesday morning.

Wardwell was not overly concerned, however, about the early spate of winter weather. “We budget for an average winter,” he said, “and we’ll see how it works out.”

Brewer already has spent nearly half the amount it has budgeted for materials to treat roads in the winter — sand, salt and liquid calcium. It budgeted $140,000 for materials for the winter and has spent more than $60,000 in December, said Dave Cote, director of public works. That figure “is probably the highest month I’ve had in the 12 years I’ve been here,” he said.

The two back-to-back ice storms “really chewed up the material,” he said.

Like other public works officials, he budgets for an average winter, and spending usually falls out accordingly. He has never exceeded his snow removal budget, he said.

Portland already has spent about 50 percent of its snow removal budget, but a large portion of that went for sand and salt before the winter began, noted Michael Bobinsky, director of public services. The city has spent about 30 percent of the amount allocated for overtime, he said.

If spending for snow removal exceeds $1 million by the middle of the winter, “To be sure, it will be a red flag for us,” said Bobinsky.

Local governments are responsible for snow removal in their own communities, noted Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association. However, they have been faced with tough budget choices — reducing services or increasing property taxes — in recent years since the state has reduced revenue-sharing funds to localities, he noted.

“We’re off to a wicked tough start this winter, with snow, ice and extreme cold,” said Conrad, “but I think you will hear that a calm or warm stretch in the next couple of months could even things out. If that doesn’t happen, there could be problems.”

Some relief is on the way, however. Temperatures will climb into the 40s throughout most of Maine on Monday. “It’s going to be a lot warmer,” said Foisy. “It seems strange to get it on the tail of the arctic outbreak.” The forecast for Monday also calls for rain in some areas.

After that, however, temperatures are expected to plunge again.

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