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Valley crews prepared for rough winter

November 12, 2013

The first snow of the season to stick, even though lightly, was a reminder on Tuesday that area public works departments will soon be spending money on keeping roads safe through another winter season.
Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee said public works employees in his community knew a light snowfall might arrive with the quick change to cold weather following the weekend but did not have to go out sanding just yet.

“But it is a wakeup call,” McKee said while noting the early snow squalls did call attention to work already being completed to ready the town’s fleet of 17-18 plows and sanders.

“There is a ritual that goes on every year to get prepared for storms and we are already doing that,” he said.

Cumberland, like other Blackstone Valley communities, has already funded its winter snow removal operations with a standard funding prediction and will watch to see if it is enough for this winter, or if more might be needed from a contingency account.

Approximately $250,000 is set aside in town budget accounts for storm work, including about $120,000 for snow removal contractors, $90,000 in materials, salt and sand, and another approximately $70,000 for town employee overtime, according to McKee.

“We tend to keep a very static amount and we find that sometimes you have a good year and then sometimes you don’t,” he said. In the worst-case scenarios, the town goes to its contingency account for the additional money needed to keep the plows rolling, McKee said.

Last winter, when a major blizzard struck Rhode Island in early February, the town was also able to secure some of the federal disaster relief funding awarded the state and add it to its general fund to make up for some of the extra winter spending, McKee said.

“We may apply that to go back to public works for equipment or for other expenses,” he said.

The town did spend $137,000 on a new snowplow-sander truck for its fleet, and McKee said that is another part of the regular planning the town does to prepare for winter storm work. The town also purchased a plow the year before and a smaller vehicle as part of its planned upgrading of public works vehicles, he said. The town’s trucks and plows handle just over 50 percent of the town’s roads during a storm, and the private contractors hired each winter the rest, according to McKee.

A mix of town vehicles and private contractors is also covered in the storm funding set aside by Lincoln each year in its town budget.
Lincoln Finance Director John F. Ward said the town uses an estimate based on an average of four years of winter expenses to come up with the approximate $275,000 in the budget’s snow removal, supplies and contractor accounts.

“Sometimes we go a little under and sometimes we go a little over,” Ward said of the annual budget projection. In 2010-11, the town spent $295,802 on snow removal, and then $159,171 in 2011-12, according to Ward. Last year the town spent $329,267, he said.

Accurately predicting the weather of any given season is near impossible, and for that reason an average of past experience is probably a more accurate way to prepare, according to Ward.

“Weather is so unpredictable, you use the average of your history of storms and hope for the best,” Ward said. The blizzard last year pushed the town over its prediction, but it also collected $100,000 in emergency aid from the federal Emergency Management Agency to help with those expenses, Ward said.

It also doesn’t have to be a big storm that breaks a town snow removal projection, and Ward noted that a series of small but regular icing events can also put the budget into an overage requiring a transfer funding from another account.

In Woonsocket, Finance Director Thomas Bruce said the city has $250,000 allotted to snow removal that also covers ice control for the purchase of sand and salt materials, and other $95,000 for hiring contractors.

The figures are similar to the amounts set aside the previous year, he said. When compared to the actual expenses for the winter of 2012-13, Bruce said the projections came on target, with most of the costs being under budget. “Rental vehicles were $83,256, and that included the blizzard,” Bruce said.

Ice control was $138,318, also under budget, and overtime $49,000 of the $66,000 available, he said.

“For all the costs we had, we came in under budget, which is fantastic because we had a blizzard in there,” Bruce said.

North Smithfield has a total of $105,000 set aside for this winter’s storms, according to Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton. That includes $30,000 for storm overtime, and $75,000 for sand and salt.

Last year the town spent $7,940 on contracted snowplows, $111,856 on sand and salt, and another $46,336 for snow overtime. The town also secured funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that covered 75 percent of the costs of the February blizzard, she said.

In Bellingham, Public Works Director Donald DiMartino said his town follows a Massachusetts model for snow removal budgeting that set aside a basic amount which is then increased by free cash transfers as needed.

“It’s been the same the entire time I’ve been here, we don’t increase it, it is $100,000, and we exceed that every year when we’re finished filling the salt shed,” he said.

The practice is for the town to spend its base amount purchasing needed supplies and then going into emergency funding when storms use up what is left.

“We fill the space we have and that usually uses up most of the budget before the first snowflake falls,” he said. “So we appropriate a small amount and then save money in free cash to appropriate emergency spending as we go,” he said.

DiMartino said the town expects it will spend in the neighborhood of $700,000 for a bad winter, but doesn’t appropriate that amount initially. “And $700,000 is the worse case scenario and we usually don’t get it that high, it’s usually in the $400,000 and $500,000 range,” he said.

The selectmen must vote to go into emergency spending and then the town can then spend what is needed to do the fight the storms, he said. Last year Bellingham spent less than its five-year average for snow removal budgets, which was $571,000 for 2002 to 2008, he said.

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