Snowless December, but outlook cloudy for impact on budgets
In these darkest days of winter, weather forecasters all seem to be saying the same thing: No snow predicted for today. With the one surprise October storm that dumped some snow in the region, suburban Boston has seen few flakes this winter, including none in December - the first time that’s happened since 1973.
For cities and towns that have spent millions of dollars in recent years on snow removal, including plowing away some 80 inches last winter, you might think the lack of snow might translate into extra dollars to spend elsewhere.
“I just wouldn’t jump to too many conclusions,’’ said Peabody Public Works director Bob Langley. “I know we’ve had a mild winter, but when one of these storms hits you’ve got to be ready.’’
Langley and most other municipal officials in the area say snow budgets rarely have surplus dollars at the end of the winter because communities typically set the budgets low. This practice is allowed since state law permits municipalities to boost the accounts during heavy snow seasons and balance the ledgers with tax dollars during the following year. If this winter holds out to be snowless and little is spent on clearing the roads, then any surplus snow removal funds could be returned to the general budget and used after July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
In a survey of five communities across the region, just one town, Andover, reported having surplus funds in four out of the last 10 years. Andover’s acting Public Works director, Christopher Cronin, attributes the year-end extra funds to setting a realistic snow budget of around $1.2 million a year. Last year, the town ran a deficit of $525,000 in snow removal, but the year before it returned $18,600 to its general fund.
“We try to give the budget an accurate number,’’ said Cronin, whose department has spent just $10,000 of its $1.2 million snow removal budget so far this winter. “The taxpayers need to know what it costs; you want to be accurate.’’
In Lynn, the city’s chief financial officer and treasurer, Richard J. Fortucci, said the city has not had surplus funds from the snow budget in at least a decade. He believes it’s best to set the budget low since it can always be increased as the season goes on.
“If you set it high you unnecessarily inflate your budget, and you don’t want other services to suffer,’’ he said.
Fortucci said Lynn typically spends at least $1 million more than the $785,000 budgeted for snow removal. Last year, Somerville spent $1.4 million, $900,000 more than the city originally budgeted. Peabody spent $1.2 million, about $700,000 over budget. And, in Lawrence, the city spent $1.4 million, far exceeding its $150,000 budget.
While small amounts of snow budgets have been spent this winter, public works directors and city officials warn that just a few storms can send those accounts into the red. Peabody spent $100,000 to clear away snow, fallen trees, and other debris after October’s northeaster. And just four or five big storms can cost a city almost $1 million, said Lawrence public works director John Isensee.
City officials say a combination of preparedness and luck can keep budgets from bursting. Communities don’t spend as much to clean up after storms when temperatures are warmer and the snow melts faster, said Tom Champion, a spokesman for Somerville’s mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone.
Isensee gathers his drivers regularly to inspect the Lawrence’s 17 snowplows. When people get complacent during mild winters, he reminds them that there were just a few minor storms that occurred in the winter of 1977-78 before the Blizzard of ’78 hit.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that anything can happen at any time,’’ said Isensee. The workers meet weekly to check the vehicles’ plow blades and sanders. Trucks are always filled with gas and windshield wiper fluid so they can be deployed at a moment’s notice, said Isensee.
Like other cities, Lawrence relies heavily on contract workers and uses as many as 65 freelance plowers, who earn $50 to $125 an hour depending on the size of their truck and plow. In recent years, the city has tried to save money by cutting back from two people in a truck to just a driver.
Isensee, who worked his way up from driving trucks to overseeing the Lawrence DPW, said he hopes the region will have little snow this year but is realistic about the winter. “There’s no predicting this,’’ he said.