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Winter storm cleanup carries hefty price tag

Date: 2/27/2014

By Chris Maza

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Local municipalities are looking at a steep price tag for snow removal this year, having far exceeded budgeted funding.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere where that wasn’t the case,” Wilbraham Town Administrator Robert Weitz said.

East Longmeadow Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent Robert Peirent told Reminder Publications that while his department figures to be on track to spend approximately $200,000 more than appropriated for fiscal year 2014, it’s not at all unusual.

“As the department has been for 15 years, we are over budget. In 15 years, the budget for snow removal really hasn’t changed,” he said.

Peirent explained that the town tracks spending on an overall basis and on a storm-by-storm basis and while not all of the costs, such as salt delivery, have been accounted for yet, a rough estimate of this year’s storm-related spending was around $300,000 to date. The annual budget allocation for snow removal is $111,636.

With that said, Peirent pointed out that the estimate was on par with, if not lower than, previous years.

“It’s a comparable figure to last year when we spent $324,000. In 2011, if you recall, it was an especially harsh winter and we spent $437,000,” he said. “The numbers may seem high, but they are in line with what we’ve incurred in the past.”

Peirent said that salt remains the largest outside cost to the town and man hours remain the primary internal concern. The fact that the latest large storms occurred during the week provided a bit of relief, he added.

“It does help from a cost standpoint because if it happens during the work day, the crews are getting paid their regular wage. The last couple of significant storms have been mid-week, so that has been to our benefit,” he said. “But if you recall, earlier in the winter, we were hit with a couple of storms over the holiday period that were expensive from a manpower standpoint.”

Longmeadow is also nearly $200,000 over budget for snow removal. Longmeadow Director of Public Works Michael Wrabel said the town has earmarked $100,000 for snow and ice control and to date, $282,329 has been spent.

Of that total $178,000 was for salt, while $83,000 went toward overtime for DPW employees.

Wrabel said some lesser storms earlier in the year, followed by more substantial snowfall more recently has kept his department very busy keeping the streets clear this winter.

“Early in the winter we had a lot of smaller storms during which the guys would work 12 hours between salting and plowing and we’d get three inches of snow,” he said. “The bigger storms, when we get 10 to 12 inches of snow, you have to make sure it’s pushed back so that when the snow melts, the water will get into storm basins because refreezing on the roads would be cause for another salting.”

In Wilbraham, Weitz did not have specific figures available as of press time, but confirmed that the town was in the red. Conservative budgeting and the particularly harsh winter were the primary reasons, he said.

“You don’t want to budget for the worst case scenario because then you’re tying up a large chunk of your town budget,” he said. “You try to budget for the average winter and this has not been your average winter.”

Weitz said it wasn’t only the magnitude of the storms the area has endured, but also the regularity in which they have occurred.

“There have been so many storms,” he said. “The little storms are almost as expensive as the big once you get the trucks moving and start putting sand and salt down.”

Peirent said he has been pleased with the level of service his plow crews have been able to provide East Longmeadow residents.

“I think the department has handled each storm very well,” he said. “The frequency and repetitive nature of the job is wearing some of the guys down, however.”

Wrabel agreed that the magnitude and frequency of storms has taken a particular toll on his crews.

“A lot of residents think the guys love the overtime, and they may like it the first couple of times after Christmas time so they can pay their bills, but by this time of the year, it’s just blood money,” he said. “The guys are just tired.”

Peirent added that the winter has also taken a toll on vehicles and as a result, his department has one or two full-time mechanics regularly supporting plow crews.

Wrabel said his department’s primary concern is the main roads and his crews made a concerted effort to make sure that major throughways were clear to allow working professionals in town to get to and from their places of employment safely.

He added there might be times when residents may not see plow crews on the roads within the first few hours of a storm. That is usual because it would be inefficient and not cost-effective to plow shortly after salting and crews are waiting for more significant accumulations.

“Sometimes it’s not enough to plow off and salt is expensive. If you put salt down, you don’t want to plow it off and then go put more down,” he said.

Timing of plowing can also depend upon factors related to that specific storm.

“Every storm is different and there are on ton of factors. It’s the intensity of the storm. You approach things differently if it’s a 10- to 12-hour storm and we’re going to get two or three inches or a storm which is going to give you two or three inches an hour for three or four hours.

“There’s not a town that could handle that intensity of snow,” he added, referring to the latter scenario.

In all severe weather situations, Wrabel said his department relies on data from outside sources and weather forecasting information can be difficult to decipher and different analyses could produce different results.

“They’re all looking at the same information from the same satellites, but the professionals could interpret that information differently,” he said.