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    Municipal budgets already strained by season of snow and ice

    Winter storms this season have brought not only an onslaught of ice and snow, but high costs for area towns.

    Between salt and sand supplies, labor costs and equipment repairs, some town officials say they are nearing their budgeted estimates for snow removal in this fiscal year, or have already surpassed them. With several weeks of winter remaining, officials are looking for alternative budget areas and savings to fund future snow-related costs.

    In Westerly, $211,350 was set aside for this fiscal year for all snow-related expenses, which include normal and overtime labor hours, salt and sand. As of Thursday, the town had spent $237,308, according to Town Manager Michelle Buck. The roughly $26,000 difference, as well as any additional funding for snow removal, will come from a restricted account, Buck said. The account currently totals $210,624, which comes from savings in snow-related expenses in previous years, plus a $50,000 contribution from the town every year.

    Peter Chiaradio, director of public works, said that salt and sand use so far has been “right around average,” with 1,200 of 1,500 tons of salt used and 1,300 of 1,800 tons of sand used.

    Chiaradio also noted that the increased demand for salt before and during storms sometimes affects delivery, since many towns use the same supplier: International Salt, based out of Providence.

    “Occasionally, we’re put on a waiting list for salt, or it comes a little later,” he said.

    The Westerly public works department needs between 25 and 30 workers every snowstorm to plow about 720 roads, and has 26 pieces of equipment, including trucks and backhoes.

    In Stonington, Wednesday’s storm put the town exactly at its allotted labor budget for snow-related work. First Selectman Ed Haberek said the 2013-14 budget allowed $120,000 for normal and overtime hours for snow removal labor by the 19-person Department of Public Works.

    The town has also exceeded the amount of salt and sand typically used; usually, 1,500 tons of a salt and sand mixture are ordered at the beginning of every winter, intended to last for the duration of the season. After Wednesday’s storm, public works crews have used 2,300 tons, 800 over the initial order.

    “We’re kind of in the red there already,” Haberek said.

    However, Haberek added that after the winter is over, the town will request additional funding from the finance board to cover the difference, as well as possibly using surpluses from other areas of the budget.

    “We try to keep the budget fluid for things like this,” he said. “I believe you really can’t skimp on snow removal and public safety.”

    North Stonington does not separate its snow-related costs from other public works expenses, making it more difficult to examine how a harsh winter has affected its budgeted amounts for removal and labor. All salt and sand expenses fall under the town road maintenance line item, explained First Selectman Nick Mullane. While Mullane said the town has spent less than 50 percent of the $185,000 allotted for all town road maintenance, he said the town has spent about $5,000 to $10,000 more on salt, sand and diesel fuel than he expected.

    As of the end of January, Mullane reported that $261,786 of a budgeted $570,000 has been spent on labor costs for the 13-person public works department, which reflects labor for all work done by the department.

    The town owns seven large and three small plow trucks, as well as two payloaders that each have a 10-foot plow hook-up and two backhoes with a 12½-foot box plow, used primarily for parking lots at the school, town hall and senior center.

    Mullane said that the town can readjust its spending on other road projects—by doing less expensive projects or simply fewer projects in total— to stay within the road maintenance and labor budgets.

    “I’m not worried, but I do hope the rest of the winter is going to be short,” he said.

    Mullane echoed Chiaradio’s concern about shortages of salt, noting that the town ordered five truckloads during its last delivery, but only received one. North Stonington receives salt from suppliers in both Providence and New Haven.

    In Hopkinton, Public Works Director Tim Tefft said the town has a reasonable amount of funding remaining to cover snow expenses for the remainder of the winter. For salt and sand, the town has spent $39,500 of $60,000, and $20,500 of $28,000 for labor related to snow removal.

    While the town hasn’t experienced too many issues with delivery from its salt supplier, Tefft noted that the order placed on Tuesday had not been received.

    Tefft added that repair to the town’s nine plows has been minimal, and that an additional $13,000 lies in a reserve fund from surpluses in salt and sand budgets in previous years, which can be used if necessary.

    Tefft noted, however, that the increase in the price of diesel fuel, which he estimated at $3.88 per gallon, has made a difference in costs for snow removal, with most plow trucks holding 50-gallon fuel tanks.

    Richmond Finance Director Dave Krugman described this year’s snowfall and winter weather as above average, but not completely out of the ordinary.

    “We’re aware of it, but we’re not anxious,” Krugman said, referring to the town’s remaining funding for snow-related expenses.

    Richmond budgeted a total of $68,000 for the year in snow-related expenses, broken down into $35,00 for snow removal supplies like salt and sand, $3,000 for temporary workers hired during storms, and $30,000 in a contingency fund, which functions as a back-up for years when more salt and sand is needed.

    The temporary hire and snow removal supplies funding has been spent, and $12,549 remains in the contingency category.

    Labor during snowstorms, both in terms of normal and overtime hours, is not separated from general work associated with the public works department, but Krugman said the department is already over its budgeted overtime by $1,018. In terms of normal labor hours, $171,239 of $280,426 has been spent in the 8-person department, which includes the transfer station attendant.

    Like Hopkinton, Krugman said, Richmond can draw on a restricted budget, funded from surpluses in years past, of $21,288.

    “Other additional sources of funding are possible, but have not been determined yet,” Krugman said.

    In Charlestown, Mark Stankiewiscz, town administrator, said the town will wait until the end of the fiscal year to determine where other surpluses exist and could be used to fund excess expenses in snow removal. To date, Charlestown has spent $52,369 of $67,807 budgeted for salt, and $32,805 of $39,608 budgeted for sand. Labor costs for snow removal are grouped in with other work performed by the public works department, making it difficult to estimate how the wintry weather has affected budgeted labor hours, Stankiewiscz said.

    With 10 trucks and 12 people in the public works department, Stankiewiscz estimated that Charlestown spends about $6,000 per storm on supplies and labor combined.

    According to Stankiewiscz, determining how much funding should be spent every year on snow cleanup is difficult, if not impossible.

    “It’s a crapshoot; you never know what to expect from year to year.”

    nlavin@thewesterlysun.com



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