EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 27, 2012

State, towns don't expect another winter of savings

By John Toole

---- — New Hampshire highway and public works officials don’t expect another easy winter like the last one to produce savings on plowing and sanding.

“That is the oddity,” Windham highway agent Jack McCartney said.

The town is on track to save about $100,000 in its calendar year budget, though McCartney expects a big storm or two before the end of the year could take a big chunk out of that.

The town had exceeded its plowing budget in eight of the last 11 years and even the winters that came under budget yielded little savings, he said.

“There has never been one like last year,” McCartney said.

“Substantial” is how he characterizes the savings.

That was true throughout the state.

New Hampshire Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton said winter road maintenance cost the state $32 million last year. That’s substantially less than the $39 million state typically spends, he said.

In Salem, public works director Rick Russell estimated savings of at least $300,000 last winter.

“Last year went well,” Russell said.

But this is New Hampshire. Winter can get even in a hurry.

Russell said Salem officials will look at three- and five-year snow averages and budget accordingly. That’s about $1 million.

Boynton said DOT has submitted a budget of $38 million to $40 million for 2014 and 2015, the historical winter maintenance average.

Windham officials, preparing for Town Meeting, are reviewing the budget now. McCartney said savings usually are applied to the general fund or used for road work. Selectmen are interested in using at least part of the savings for the general fund, he said.

Russell said Salem’s savings are put in a trust for plowing, meaning the town won’t have to budget as much.

The Legislature asked the DOT to reallocate the $7 million in savings for critical repairs and maintenance.

Spring projects such as mowing, drainage and tree work were completed using the savings, Boynton said.

As much as the easy winter pleased highway officials by yielding savings, others can’t wait for a tougher winter: plowing contractors.

“Those guys will be eager,” Russell said. “That’s their bread and butter.”

Of the 70 pieces of plowing equipment on Salem roads, 43 are contracted.

McCartney said Windham uses 14 to 18 contractors, depending on the storm.

He points out plowing isn’t the main source of income for many contractors, but rather a sideline.

“It’s not like you can bank on it,” McCartney said.

Boynton said DOT uses private contractors in the Interstate 93 corridor in Southern New Hampshire, though the number has been reduced in recent years because of environmental restrictions designed to protect the watersheds.

Special equipment is needed to treat the highway due to those restrictions.

“The hired trucks typically are not interested in the investment in those systems for something that they just do as side work,” Boynton said. “We have actually moved state trucks and personnel from other areas to cover the gaps.”