Despite big storms, plowing expenses within budget (3/4/10)

Town could use budget surplus to pave roads

March 4, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Williston has spent just two-thirds of its road salt budget so far this winter, potentially producing a small windfall that could be used for summer repaving work.

The town had used 1,269 tons of salt as of Feb. 19, according to the Williston Public Works Department. As of that date, the town had spent only 63 percent of the $122,550 budgeted this winter for salt usage.

Overtime pay for snowplowing, which tends to rise and fall depending on winter weather, is also well under budget. The latest available figures show the town using just 44 percent of its $38,190 overtime budget for winter road maintenance.

Both overtime and salt usage figures do not include last week’s slushy storm. Public Works Director Bruce Hoar said the storm increased the salt and overtime numbers, but not dramatically.

The town divides the annual $1 million road maintenance budget by season, with about half of it spent in the summer and the remainder in the winter. The town typically holds back a portion of the money for paving until the spring to hedge against unpredictable plowing expenses.

That hedge has been needed in recent years. Williston exceeded its budget for road salt in both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 fiscal years.

Hoar said it’s too soon to count on having extra money for repaving. He noted that the snow season still has two months to go and a few storms could quickly blow away the budget surplus.

The National Weather Service in South Burlington had recorded 90 inches of snow as of March 1. The average seasonal snowfall is 81 inches, with about a quarter of that usually seen in March and April.

“Winter is not over yet by a long shot,” metrological technician Gerald Macke said. “Historically speaking, on average you can get another 15 inches in March.”

But plowing expenses don’t only depend on the amount of snow. Just as important is the number of times snows falls or the roads get icy. Much of the snowfall this year was generated by just two storms.

The first, on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, produced 35 inches of snow in Burlington, an all-time record for a single storm, according to the National Weather Service.

The second occurred last week as wet, heavy snow blanketed the area. Thirteen inches of snow and more than an inch of rain was recorded on Feb. 24, both records for the date.

“It’s been an unusual winter,” Hoar said. “We’ve had a lot of small dustings, but only two major storms.”

Over the past few years, the town has tried to more efficiently use salt, currently priced at $60.96 a ton and one of the largest road maintenance expenses. Some trucks are now equipped with pavement temperature sensors that indicate where salt is most needed. The town has also stopped applying salt in some low-traffic locations.

The forecast calls for a clearing trend over the next few days, but longer-range predictions are dicey, Macke said, particularly given this winter’s alternating dry spells and dramatic storms.

“It’s been a kind of feast or famine around here,” he said.