June 23, 2018
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Relentless winter storms hit Maine’s snow removal budgets hard

By Jamison Cocklin, Special to the BDN

BANGOR, Maine — As public works crews continued to clean up roads and sidewalks from yet another snowstorm this week, municipal officials cast a wary eye on their snow removal budgets.

Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum said Thursday that thanks to the latest onslaught of snow, there is only $18,000 left of the $56,000 budgeted for a year’s worth of overtime for municipal workers, including plow drivers.

The city’s fiscal year began last July, and the money budgeted likely won’t last until the end of June, he said.

“I probably have a storm and a half left before I blow that budget,” Slocum said. “Last year, we had money left over. Last year was a really mild winter. I was just hoping last year’s situation would repeat this year.”

Greenville Town Manager Gary Lamb also is worried. He said Thursday that his town has spent two-thirds of its winter road maintenance budget already.

“The town manager and the Board of Selectmen are obviously concerned that we may run out of money before we run out of winter,” he said.

Greenville budgeted $154,837, and as of Jan. 28, had spent $87,155.

Many other public works directors and town managers across Maine echoed the same concerns this week, though most also indicated that their winter storm budgets were holding up — so far.

In Bangor, for instance, where city officials budget more than $1 million for a total of 80 inches worth of snow each year, Public Works Director Dana Wardwell remains undaunted.

“We certainly could go over our budget,” he said Wednesday. “We plan for 80 inches, and if we receive a foot today [Wednesday], it will put us in the low-70s, but we anticipate these kinds of things and are prepared as a result.”

A meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Caribou said Thursday that Bangor received 12.2 inches of snow from Wednesday’s storm, bringing the total snowfall to 68.6 inches so far. That is about 34 inches above the norm for Bangor this time of year, according to Meteorologist Timothy Duda of the NWS.

David Ouellette, director of the Caribou Public Works Department, estimated Thursday that the average snowfall in his part of Aroostook County is 24 to 25 inches below normal so far this year.

Despite that significant drop in snowfall, the amount the city has spent on snow removal is only slightly less than in previous years, he said.

“We have been out plowing as much as we normally would, but the accumulations haven’t been as high as they have been in the past,” Ouellette said. “At the same time, our use of product such as salt is pretty close to normal. It takes just as much product to take care of a 2-inch storm as it does to take care of a 10- or 12-inch storm.”

In Houlton, Public Works Director Leigh Stilwell said that he has also used as much salt and sand as he normally would each year. He added that his overtime budget is up slightly because of all of the little storms and the handful of larger ones that have hit southern Aroostook County in recent weeks.

In Piscataquis County, Dover-Foxcroft’s budget for snow removal is still in good shape, according to Town Manager Jack Clukey.

“We’re in the black,” Clukey said. “We’re about where we would expect to be, just barely over 50 percent,” he said. “Right now, we’re fairly well on track.”

A report released in 2010 by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine shows that snow removal in Maine is no small task. From 2008 to 2009, the statewide costs for cleanup were estimated at $98 million, or about $76 per person, which covered the 23,450 miles of public roads, according to the report. What’s more, between the Maine Department of Transportation, the Maine Turnpike Authority and the 488 municipalities that are responsible for covering those costs, 81 percent of the nearly $1 million figure was paid for by the municipalities.

John Rubin, an economist involved in writing the report, said municipalities prioritize snow removal in their budgets and are prepared for anything that might occur as a result.

“Each city can really pick and choose what it’s going to do,” Rubin said. “So service really varies from town to town. They can decide if they’re going to do parking lots or sidewalks or anything else, and their budgets will reflect that.”

Rob Yerxa, the public works director in Orono, said the costs of salt are down for his department this year. He said Orono has saved $3,000 on materials in a snow removal budget of $125,000. Yerxa budgets for 1,500 tons of salt for 42 miles of road, and the price per ton has decreased by $2 since last year. However, he said the savings have disappeared as the price of gasoline has increased by 45 cents from where it was last year at this time.

“We’ve still been doing pretty well on our budget, but fuel is a major concern right now,” Yerxa said. “Municipalities in Maine have been doing this for so many years that we know ahead of time what to expect.”

David Cote, Brewer’s public works director, said city councilors there are prepared for any strain on the budget, and in most cases, if his department exceeds its budget, he has authorization to do whatever it takes to “keep the public safe.”

Though she had no figures available, Calais City Manager Diane Barnes said during Wednesday’s storm that the above-average snowfall there this year was busting the budget with all the overtime required of public works crews.

“They just get done and they have to start over again,” she said. “The storms are coming so fast that we can’t remove the piled-up snow, and the mountains of snow are getting really dangerous.”

Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin said he did not know the exact figures, but that the shiretown budgeted for plenty of winter storms.

“And that is what we are getting, plenty of winter storms,” he said.

Loughlin said the budget is not overdrawn at this point.

“Our biggest problem now is where to put the snow,” he said.

Dexter is in pretty good shape, according to Town Manager Dave Pearson. He said that as of Feb. 1, which is 58 percent through the fiscal year, the town had used up 48.86 percent of the year’s budget for winter road maintenance.

“We are in good shape with sand but will likely need to buy more salt if it goes on like this,” Pearson said. He said he still has $9,700 in that line item.

“All in all, I am not particularly worried, knock on wood,” he said.

While the amount of snowfall and the number of storms are having an impact on budgets, Slocum, the Belfast town manager, also is concerned about the effect on public works employees.

Those workers, who have had to work late nights and early mornings to clear the snow from the city’s streets and sidewalks, are getting exhausted, Slocum said.

“Everybody likes to earn a little overtime. No one likes to earn so much you can’t think straight,” he said.

Yerxa, the public works director in Orono, said, “I think the word that would describe this winter best for those of us responsible for snow removal would have to be challenging.”

BDN writers Sharon Kiley Mack, Jen Lynds, Diana Bowley and Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.

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