Heaps of trouble

Snowstorms are straining finances across state

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By Peter Schworm and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / January 27, 2011

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For those responsible for keeping miles of roads and walkways clear, it’s a bad year for a bad winter.

Scarcely a month into the season, many communities across the region have exhausted their snow and ice removal budgets and are diverting large sums from other municipal funds. The state Transportation Department has already spent some $40 million, Boston has spent $11 million, and even small suburbs have spent several hundred thousand, more than they typically spend all season.

Some towns said they are paying $15,000 for every inch of snow that must be cleared, and more to dispose of the enormous snow piles that are choking streets and walkways. And with snow this winter often coming at night and on weekends, there has been overtime to pay.

So as winter-weary residents groaned at the arrival of yet an other storm yesterday, municipal leaders braced for another blow to the bottom line.

“It looks like a winter wonderland,’’ said Peter Hechenbleikner, town manager in Reading, which has already spent well beyond its $525,000 budget. “But enough is enough.’’

The storm was expected to dump between 7 and 11 inches of snow in the Boston area overnight before tapering off this morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Communities are allowed to exceed snow removal budgets to keep roads and sidewalks clear, and many budgeted conservatively in hopes of a light winter. But eventually, towns will have to make up the difference, either by tapping reserves or next year’s budget.

“These white snowflakes are turning into red ink,’’ said Geoff Beckwith, who directs the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Deficits won’t dry up when the snow goes away.’’

Still, most communities “plow first and pay later,’’ Beckwith said, and most local officials say snow operations are sacrosanct because residents are quick to judge elected officials who scrimp. Town officials said they cut corners at their political peril.

“If we ever pulled something like that here, we’d get our heads handed to us,’’ said John Isensee, public works director in Lawrence, which so far has spent some $550,000 on snow removal.

But financial pressures have forced some towns to scale back. Scituate is now requiring downtown merchants to clear sidewalks in front of their stores, and the town is plowing private roads less often.

“This is the reality we live in,’’ said Patricia Vinchesi, the town administrator. “People are accustomed to the town doing it, but we’ve really had to scrutinize those services.’’

Even treating roads with a low-salt mixture that is less expensive than sand, the town has spent virtually all of its $486,000 budget, she said.

In Manchester-by-the-Sea, where frequent storms have drained the snow budget, town officials have scaled back on overnight snow removal and sidewalk plowing to save money. Facing a potential tax override, the town needs to trim costs where it can, even if there is grumbling over the results.

“We are trying to lower people’s expectations,’’ said Wayne Melville, the town administrator. “We need to find a sweet spot where we aren’t burning money.’’

Adding to the headaches, many communities say they are running out of places to put all the snow and face the expensive prospect of bringing in heavy equipment to remove it altogether.

“We’re basically stuffing it in every crevice we can find,’’ said Isensee, the Lawrence public works head. “Hauling it away, that’s a very pricey proposition for us.’’

But residents say the tall snowbanks are an increasing hazard, blocking drivers’ views and forcing pedestrians to walk in the road. In Boston, the piles have turned curbside parking into an alpine adventure.

After parking on Commonwealth Avenue yesterday, Sarah Tocco scaled a snowbank in high heels steadying herself at the top by holding the parking meter and straining to drop quarters into the slot.

“It was pretty risky, but I wasn’t scared,’’ said Tocco, a doctoral student at Boston University.

The abundance of curbside snow forced Kevin Lane, also a BU student, to park in the bike lane, then climb a 3-foot pile to feed the meter.

“The problem is just going to be increasing over the next few days,’’ he said, “because there’s nowhere else to put it.’’

Stephen Andrews, a traveling salesman from Amesbury who parked near Northeastern University, said the city should give people “a little leeway’’ on paying for parking when the meters are half-buried.

“It’s a challenge,’’ he said.

Officials in several suburban towns shared that sentiment.

“More snow and less money from the state,’’ said John D’Agostino, town manager in Abington. “What a joy.’’

Schworm can be reached at; Ballou at