By Douglas Moser
---- — Public works departments around the area have blown through their snow and ice budgets as storms have blasted the region one after another.
Every department in the area has spent more than $1 million each in their snow budgets this winter, with some public works directors fearing a rough March ahead. Most communities budget a couple hundred thousand dollars each year for snow. The unpredictability of weather, and particularly New England weather, is built into how those budgets work and allows some deficit spending, but the bills have to be paid eventually.
The storms also have strained salt supplies, with widespread heavy demand backing up orders for weeks in some cases and local sheds running low.
Lawrence has spent about $1.2 million so far this year, nearly 10 times the $150,000 the city’s public works department is budgeted annually.
“It takes us probably $100,000 to get out of the garage at the start of the season, from supplies, getting inspected, salt and sand,” Lawrence DPW Director John Isensee said. “That’s just to get prepared. Very quickly we’re in front of the city council asking to override that expenditure line.”
Methuen has spent $1.4 million so far, about seven times the $215,000 budgeted for the year. North Andover has spent about $1.2 million, compared to $750,000 budgeted for the year. And Andover has spent $1.5 million, with about $1.25 million budgeted for the year.
Once the budget is gone, the roads still need to be plowed and the salt spread, so departments generally can spend what they have to in order to make sure the roads are safe.
State law requires cities and towns to balance their budgets every year and deficits are forbidden — except for snow and ice. A community can carry a snow deficit forward to the next year, but it must be repaid out of the tax base.
“That’s the only account you can overspend because of the safety recognition,” said Methuen DPW Director Raymond DiFiore.
A large deficit also can be reduced at the end of a fiscal year by taking any money remaining in other departments’ budgets and applying it to the snow and ice deficit.
Several directors, though, cautioned against increasing their snow and ice budgets.
Isensee said that appropriating more each year would only guarantee that money would be spent, no matter the weather. “If you budget $500,000, then you have to do that every year after that. Once you put it in there you can’t reduce it, realistically,” he said.
Bruce Thibodeau, director of public works in North Andover, agreed. “There’s all kinds of reasons you don’t, because you don’t want to tie up all your money,” he said.
Salt deliveries are backed up as well, with local communities reporting that they are waiting for hundreds of tons worth of deliveries.
DiFiore said Methuen borrowed from the state shed in Tewksbury. The city is waiting for delivery of between 35 and 40 trailer loads.
A trailer load is 30 tons, and most local communities pay $44 per ton — or $1,320 per load — through a consortium of cities and towns that buy salt together. Those communities include Andover, Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover locally, along with Burlington, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Wilmington, Winchester and Woburn.
Lawrence is waiting on 30 trailer loads, or 900 tons, while Andover is waiting on 50 loads, or about 1,500 tons.
“It’s ugly,” Isensee said. “Salt management is one of the biggest issues this year.”
Thibodeau in North Andover said his department is not down too much, but the supply has been a concern. “It’s never been a crisis, but it’s been tight,” he said.
Deliveries were disrupted at the end of December when a brutal ice storm coated Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, knocked out power and diverted salt deliveries to Northern New England.
So what happens when salt starts running low in February? DiFiore and Isensee said they mix in sand and sometimes magnesium. DiFiore will prioritize hills, intersections and main roads. Some flat roads may get sand instead of salt.
The local consortium also has the option of buying salt through a secondary supplier if the primary supplier cannot deliver.
Several directors are warily awaiting March, which can mean two things: Spring on March 20 and the potential for another couple heavy snows, just like last year.
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