By Doug Ireland
---- — It’s been more than a week since a major storm dumped nearly a foot of snow on Southern New Hampshire, but some town officials are still on edge.
They’re anxiously waiting to hear how many thousands of dollars their communities spent on salt, sand and snow removal during the two-day storm.
Only two weeks into 2014, some towns are almost afraid to find out how much they spent. They already are facing a dire financial situation when it comes to winter maintenance costs.
Several days of icy roads and at least two snowstorms in December — when often there are none — saw municipal spending soar. So when the nor’easter hit Jan. 2-3, their budgets were already on thin ice.
“It was a very costly storm for the town,” Sandown Selectmen’s Chairman Thomas Tombarello said. “We were already out of money in December.”
Sandown voters approved $125,000 for plowing and $89,500 for salt and sand in March, but it wasn’t enough. The need to deal with icy roads and December snowstorms exhausted the budget, Tombarello said.
Derry also expended a huge chunk of its winter maintenance budget before the new year even started.
The town spent $265,000 of its $607,000, or 44 percent, of its winter budget by Dec. 30, public works director Michael Fowler said. He estimated Derry spent an additional $50,000 to $75,000 dealing with the two-day storm.
Fowler said he isn’t concerned at this point, saying it’s too early in the season. A snowy December and January can be followed by very little snow and ice in February and March.
But Tombarello is worried about the weather and expenses.
“It’s very scary,” he said. “If this pattern keeps up, we are going to have a problem. I’m very, very concerned.”
Sandown is relying on a state Department of Transportation block grant to fund snow removal until a new budget is approved in March.
The grant, received each year, is usually spent on urgent town projects. Sandown is applying for a $136,326 highway grant for this year as well, Tombarello said.
“We put in for the money every year and hope we don’t have to use it,” Tombarello said. “That money is not really there for plowing. It’s there for projects that are unforeseen.”
More bad weather takes toll
Municipal budgets took additional hits early last week when two days of snow and subzero temperatures were followed by temperatures in the 40s and rain. That was followed by another deep freeze.
That freeze led to temperatures plummeting to the teens for a few days, causing roads to ice up and public works crews to delve into their salt and sand supplies. Snow that fell much of the day Friday also strained town budgets, and was to be followed by freezing rain and icy conditions yesterday.
“The ice has been a killer, too,” Tombarello said. “We had some real dangerous situations. We would get the big rain, then the rain turns into ice.”
Newton road agent Michael Pivero said the town, where the fiscal year runs from January to December, has spent a large chunk of its winter maintenance budget in just the last few weeks.
“We’ve probably spent 20 to 30 percent of the winter budget already,” he said. “There’s obviously a concern. Budgets are tight, money is tight.”
Pivero estimated the town has usually spent just 10 percent by mid-January.
Londonderry has spent roughly 30 percent of its $460,000 winter budget, Town Manager Kevin Smith said. The town’s public works crew typically deals with 20 storms a season. It’s already been out 16 times to remove snow and treat roads, he said.
Towns aren’t the only ones seeing their winter budgets depleted. Keeping state highways safe, including Interstate 93, can be expensive as well.
New Hampshire Department of Transportation spokesman William Boynton said the state has spent $20.9 million of its $42 million winter maintenance budget, or 49 percent. That includes spending 57 percent of the overtime budget and using 78,000 tons of road salt.
There are still 14 weeks of the season remaining, but Boynton said he’s not concerned.
“We have to let the winter play out,” he said. “No one knows what the weather will be over the next 14 weeks. If we exceed our planned appropriations, we will have to go before a legislative committee to seek a transfer from the state highway fund.”
Many towns are wondering how the early January storm will affect their overall budgets.
Plaistow and Londonderry already know. Plaistow had to spend $50,000 on that one storm alone, according to Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said. Londonderry spent approximately $35,000, Smith said.
The cost can range from $30,000 to $50,000 to deal with a typical snowstorm, Fitzgerald said. Plaistow has budgeted $220,000 for winter maintenance for this year, including $150,000 for plowing, he said.
Fitzgerald said there have been a few occasions in the last five years when more money had to be requested for winter maintenance at the annual deliberative session.
Some towns not concerned
While some town officials are nervous, others aren’t worried.
They are confident enough money has been budgeted to get them through a harsh New Hampshire winter without taking money from other accounts to cover expenses.
Danville Selectmen’s Chairman Shawn O’Neil said the town has been able to budget enough money in recent years to fund its winter expenses — expecting to spend $5,000 to $10,000 for each storm.
The $141,500 budgeted for this year is identical to last year’s allocation. If necessary, Danville — like Plaistow — will request additional money from voters at the deliberative session. That’s only happened twice in the last eight years, he said.
For other towns, it’s only a matter of time before those bills roll in. Town officials will then know if they will have to make adjustments just as Plaistow has had to do.
“Right now, we are nine days into the calendar and no bills have come in,” Windham Town Manager David Sullivan said Thursday.
But Sullivan isn’t worried and neither is Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey.
Windham, Salem and many other local towns operate on a January-to-December fiscal calendar. For most, that means it’s too early in the season to worry about not having enough money since their new fiscal year began Jan. 1.
Through late December, Windham had spent $110,000 of its $175,000 winter maintenance budget. In Salem, Hickey said the town spent $683,00 of its $750,000 winter budget in 2013. The same amount has been allocated for this year.
Atkinson spent $157,000 of its $161,000 winter budget in 2013, Town Administrator William Innes said. The town has budgeted $161,000 for this year.