SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 20, 2013

'A roll of the dice'

Budgeting for snowstorms is not an exact science

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — On Monday, Danvers had about $100,000 remaining in its snow and ice account, Town Manager Wayne Marquis said.

Given tight budgets, the longtime town manager was hoping the money would not melt away like the snow eventually will from yesterday’s late winter storm.

But yesterday, more than half that remainder was gone. After the storm, the town had spent 94 percent — or $654,000 out of a budgeted $695,000 — of its snow and ice account, much of which was spent clearing snow from the February blizzard and the 14 inches that fell on March 7 and 8.

The figure did not include salting operations overnight last night, with snow still falling yesterday afternoon, said Department of Public Works Director of Operations Bob Lee.

With spring beginning today, North Shore officials are wondering if they have reached the end to spending on snow and ice removal.

Yesterday seemed more like the first day of winter than the last, with 10 inches of snow falling on Salem. The snow started light just before midnight Tuesday, then became moderate to heavy from 5 to 7 a.m. before changing over to sleet and rain at 9 a.m., according to an email from Arthur Francis, a meteorologist at Salem State University. Francis’ tally does not count the snow that fell during yesterday afternoon’s commute, which saw crews out salting and plowing again.

While Danvers may have hit the nail on the head when it comes to forecasting its snow and ice budget, other North Shore communities face having to dig out from a snow and ice deficit in the coming fiscal year.

A city or town can “deficit-spend” for snow and ice removal, according to state law and the website of the Division of Local Services of the state Department of Revenue.

However, to do this, snow and ice appropriations have to equal or exceed the amount appropriated in the prior fiscal year. That means cities and towns cannot lower the amount for snow and ice removal and then deficit-spend the next year.

“The Department of Revenue doesn’t let you move it down,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who said if Salem had budgeted the nearly $1 million it will cost to clear its streets of snow and ice this winter, it would hurt the city’s financial flexibility in the future. Once Driscoll budgets $1 million for snow and ice, she cannot lower that amount in the next fiscal year and then deficit-spend.

Salem budgeted approximately $430,000 for snow and ice this year, and bills have already amounted to $883,000, not counting bills that have yet to be paid, Driscoll said.

Last winter, when there was not much snow, the city spent $340,000 for snow and ice removal. The city’s three-year average for snow and ice spending is $659,000.

“Hopefully, winter is close to over,” said Beverly Commissioner of Public Services Michael Collins.

While all the bills have not come in yet, he estimates that the city’s snow and ice deficit could be as high as $250,000.

For many years, the city budgeted $387,000 for snow and ice removal. In the last two years, that figure has been nudged up to $650,000 “mostly because the mayor recognized that we are never going to see those $387,000 years again,” Collins said.

The city has seen the price of salt double in recent years, and it must absorb increases from contractors who are paying higher fuel and insurance costs.

While it may seem snowier than usual, Collins said the winter got off to a slow start, but the amount of snow the city has seen is typical for a New England winter.

So, how did Danvers officials figure out how much to budget for snow and ice removal? The town uses a five-year average of storms and snow and factors in the present rate for contractors, the overtime rate for DPW employees and the current cost of salt. It’s not an exact science, Lee said.

“Just like the weather forecast, it was a roll of the dice,” Lee said.

A message left seeking comment from the Peabody public services director was not returned as of press time.

Staff writer Tom Dalton contributed to this report.