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Winter storms threaten local snow-removal budgets

Now that FEMA has stiffened standards for snow-removal reimbursements, staying close to budget is key

January 29, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER | kate.alexander@herald-mail.com

The smaller winter storms that blanketed Washington County recently might be more tolerable than last winter's blizzards, but they are threatening local snow-removal budgets.

Based on midwinter assessments, some governmental jurisdictions are likely to exceed fiscal year 2011 budgeted expenses for materials needed to keep streets passable.

"Small storm or big storm, you have to treat the roads," said Eric Deike, Hagerstown's manager of public works.

Many jurisdictions exceeded or doubled budgeted expenses for snow removal last winter.  

Now that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stiffened its standards for snow-removal reimbursements, staying close to budget is key for communities, as a new record snowfall is needed to receive any federal assistance, Deike said.

With spring still more than a month away, Deike said the City of Hagerstown already has exhausted the $100,000 it budgeted for chemicals to treat the roads.

Washington County is on track to exceed the $450,000 it budgeted for materials to treat roads, said Edwin Plank, director of the county highway department.

Smaller municipalities, like Clear Spring and Williamsport, however, reported being on or under budget.

Deike and Plank said they will be able to accommodate excess snow-removal expense if the second half of winter proves as formidable as the first.

City Budget Officer Al Martin said Hagerstown can rely on other general funds to supplement its snow-removal budget, if necessary.

"We will spend what is needed to maintain clear city streets," Martin said. "If we run out, we will find other funds in order to provide this necessary service."

With more than half of its total $407,700 snow-removal budget spent, the city is waiting to see what future storms bring, he said.

For Washington County, Plank said snow removal is part of the overall highway department budget, so the more that is spent on chemicals means less is spent on road repairs.

"If winter expends all our money for materials, come spring, when we are patching roads and purchasing storm drains, it will limit the repairs we can do," Plank said.

Washington County uses a mix of salt, anti-skid and liquid deicing products to treat roads, Plank said.

Deike said the city only uses salt.

Regardless of the materials, even a small storm requires that roads be treated, Deike said.

Storms like the blizzard in February 2010 actually require less chemicals to keep roads open, Plank said.

"Once the snow starts falling, there is only so much you can do," he said. "With big storms, we won't use as much material as we will man-hours."

Not only are the city and county quickly going through budgeted funds, both are going through, literally, tons of salt with each storm.

Plank said he estimates that the county used 700 to 800 tons of salt and other chemicals just treating the roads last week.

Hagerstown and the county have to make periodic orders throughout the season to keep piles high.

"We can't stock the salt we need for a season, so we have to do smaller orders, on a storm-by-storm basis," Plank said.

To compound the problem, Deike said municipalities are having difficulty receiving timely shipments of salt this year from the statewide vendor.

"We are very low on salt," he said.

Deike said he placed an order for 200 tons of salt on Jan. 20 and has only received 20 tons from that order.

Hoping to get enough salt in storage for the storm forecast to hit the area Tuesday, Deike said he ordered an additional 700 tons of salt.

Smaller towns like Clear Spring, which only plows and treats about 2 miles of road, are staying on budget.

Clear Spring Street Commissioner Teddy Hovermale said with the recent smaller storms, the town has spent less than half of its $4,000 budget for the year.

Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said Williamsport is likewise doing well managing it's snow budget, but it also has money in reserve if the remaining winter months prove harsh.

McCleaf said his town has taken an innovative approach to clearing snowy streets. In addition to treating the roads with salt, he said the plows push snow to the center of streets.

When pushed into the center of the road, the snow forms a barrier between lanes, protecting motorists from sliding into oncoming vehicles and clearing snow away from parked vehicles, he said.

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