Snowplows stay busy despite mild winter

Salt usage, labor costs running ahead of budget

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A little snow, followed by men in big trucks.

That’s been the story in Williston this year. At the midpoint of a relatively mild winter, the town has used up much of its budget for salt and sand and logged considerable overtime for plowing.

As of last week, the town had spent roughly two-thirds of its annual budget for road salt, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden. The town has rolled out plow trucks 30 times.

“There’s been lots of rain and half-inch snowstorms,” Boyden said. “It’s been right up there, but there’s nothing on the ground to show for it.”

The reason? Small but frequent snowfalls, combined with sleet, freezing rain and above-average temperatures. Snow showers can require just as much plowing and salt as big storms, Boyden said.

The National Weather Service had recorded 43.9 inches of snow as of Jan. 27, an inch above normal for that time of year. Mother Nature, however, has doled out the snow in small doses.

“It’s kind of been nickels and dimes, but it’s not below average for the season,” said Maureen Breitbach of the National Weather Service office in South Burlington.

Meanwhile, the temperature, at least for January, has been running well above normal. The average temperature last month was 27.8 degrees, more than 9 degrees above average. Breitbach said that made it the sixth-warmest January since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1884.

The weather pattern has added up to many freeze-and-thaw cycles, meaning frequent plowing and heavy salt usage to keep roads clear. Boyden said lots of snow showers can cost as much or more to clear as a few big storms. The timing is also important. Snow at night, for example, can mean overtime for drivers.

In fact, labor costs are also high so far this year, with Boyden estimating that the town has used 55-60 percent of its overtime budget for plowing.

The town typically uses 2,000 tons of salt and 1,000 tons of sand each winter. For salt alone, $80,000 has been budgeted for this year. The town plans on spending $433,000 for plowing, which covers the truck drivers’ pay; salt and sand; fuel; and maintenance.

Williston has a fleet of seven full-size plow trucks. They are supplemented by a contractor that plows smaller, narrower streets where big trucks are difficult to maneuver. In all, the town has about 72 miles of paved and unpaved roads.

The amount of plowing required during any given period varies widely from year to year. At the end of January last year, the town had used up 74 percent of its salt budget. The year before, it was only 40 percent.

Things tend to even out over the course of a long winter, Boyden said. But if spring comes and the town has exceeded its road-clearing budget for the year, it must cut back elsewhere.

“We can’t spend more than the voters approved,” Boyden said.