By Mac Cerullo
---- — Battered by one snowstorm after another, local communities are starting to see their annual snow and ice budgets inch closer to the red — with yet another storm on the horizon for tonight.
Reports on the severity of this weekend’s storm vary, with some projecting primarily rain followed by 2 to 4 inches of accumulation, while others predict as much as a foot of snow.
Either way, more snow means another round of salt, sand and plowing, which adds up to more costs for area communities.
Since the brutal winter of 2011, New England largely avoided any significant snowfall until two weeks ago when the historic Blizzard of 2013 dumped 2 feet of snow across the area. That was followed by another storm last weekend, and preceded by a couple of smaller storms earlier in the season.
Clearing the roads after a storm costs money, and every year municipal governments set a budget to deal with the snow when it comes. The trouble, officials say, is they can never predict what Mother Nature will bring, so it’s not unusual to see communities go over budget when it snows as much as it has this year.
Newburyport, for example, has already overspent its snow and ice budget by about $54,000. The city had set aside $170,000 this winter — and costs have already hit $224,000, according to Peter Lombardi, director of policy and administration in the mayor’s office.
While Amesbury hasn’t quite expended its $225,000 snow and ice budget, the city’s Chief Financial Officer Michael Basque said it’s getting close.
“I imagine that this weekend will put us over, and if that happens, we’ll go to the City Council and request a transfer,” Basque said.
In Salisbury, the preliminary cost estimate for the Blizzard of 2013 cleanup is $61,631, a figure that will be forwarded to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hopes of some aid.
According to DPW Director Don Levesque, the cost estimate includes salaries, overtime and wage-related fringe benefits for the seven staffers who worked the blizzard, along with fuel, sand, salt and a value factor for each piece of equipment used. It also includes $22,691 for six private contractors brought in to help with plowing.
Levesque said Salisbury, which buys its snow-fighting materials through a multi-town consortium, went through 99 tons of salt, at $47 at ton, for a total cost of $4,653, and 80 tons of sand, at $12.75 per ton, or $1,020 total.
Levesque said he is worried about his snow budget. As of yesterday, he’d spent $90,000 of the $99,000 budgeted, and believes there could be a lot of winter still ahead.
“I believe we can practically expect six to eight more weeks of winter,” Levesque said. “I think we may go through about $135,000 before it’s over.”
In Seabrook, the Blizzard of 2013, extending over four days, was known as the eighth weather event of the fiscal year, which began Jan. 1 in New Hampshire. Although other town department’s incurred costs related to the storm, the Public Works Department bore most of the burden with a preliminary estimate of $41,775 spent.
Public Works Manager John Starkey has chronicled the storm minute-by-minute in a 14-page report that will be sent, along with a record of costs, to New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Starkey’s report indicates the town used every piece of DPW equipment and called on every staff member before, during and after the storm. The department needed all of its 14 vehicles to plow, sand and salt, along with three other loaned vehicles from the water, sewer and police departments, which were used to treat roads, plow as well as build sand berms at the beach and dig out hydrants. In addition, Starkey made the unusual move of bringing in four private contractors at a cost of $11,517.
Given that the storm hit on the weekend, the DPW incurred $20,469 in overtime for staff, along with $1,685 in overtime paid to Water Department employees who augmented the DPW’s personnel.
In addition, Seabrook went through 135 tons of salt, at $55.92 a ton, for a total cost of $7,549, and 30 tons of sand, at $18.50 per ton, or $555.
Even with the costs, Starkey said this week that his storm budget for this fiscal year still looks OK, as does his overtime budget. But he cautioned that if March is as busy a weather month as February has been, things could change.
Other local communities are still trying to catch up with their numbers after a seemingly nonstop barrage of winter storms.
In West Newbury, the snow and ice budget was set at $150,000. Town Finance Director Warren Sproul said the year-to-date expenditures are $67,895 and growing.
“We haven’t fully expensed all snow and ice due to the recent storms,” he said. “That figure will go higher.”
Rowley also hadn’t compiled updated numbers since the last storm, but Town Administrator Deborah Eagan said its annual budget is $80,000 and she didn’t expect to go over this year despite the heavy snow.
In Newbury, the $120,000 snow and ice account is already likely in the red. Town Administrator Tracy Blais said $115,000 had been spent prior to this past weekend’s storm.
“Fortunately, we have certified free cash that we can transfer from at the Special Town Meeting in May,” Blais said. “Otherwise, the deficit would need to be raised on next year’s recapitulation sheet.”
Snow and ice is one of the few accounts that legally can be run in deficit. In the event a community does go over budget, the money can either be covered with free cash from past years or via the following year’s “recap sheet.”
Contrary to public perception, however, if there is leftover snow removal money at the end of the year, it does not roll over into the following year’s account.
“Nothing carries over from year to year,” Basque said. “State law says every fiscal year is separate, so whoever doesn’t expend all their funds, it gets sent back and that becomes part of the formula for free cash.”
Free cash is often the preferred source to cover snow deficits. Officials from Newburyport and Newbury have indicated they would use free cash to cover their expected deficits, and Amesbury and West Newbury have done so in the past.
Angeljean Chiaramida, Jennifer Solis, and Michelle Pelletier Marshall contributed to this story.