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Mild winter a welcome savings

Cities and towns revel in a season without winter’s chill - or costs

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Some areas barely used salt stockpiles, including the Joseph F. Casazza Public Works Facility in Boston.

In one of the mildest winters in memory, Massachusetts cities and towns have spent a fraction of last year’s total on snow removal, an unexpected reprieve that has helped recoup past deficits, tackle backlogged repairs, and stockpile supplies.

So far, Boston has spent $2.3 million on snow removal, compared with $21.5 million last winter. Somerville, which has spent less than 25 percent of last year’s sum, has put $100,000 toward repairing snow vehicles.

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Like many communities, Framingham has hardly touched its expensive 1,100-ton salt stockpile.

“There has not been a full salting event since October,’’ said Peter Sellers, who directs the town’s Public Works Department, which so far has spent a fifth of last winter’s total.

After a surprise snowstorm pounded a wide stretch of Central and Western Massachusetts in October, causing extensive damage, local officials feared a repeat of last winter and wondered where the money would come from. Instead, winter went into hibernation.As many rejoiced in the balmy season, so have those who see falling snow as money lost. “It would have been very difficult to have back-to-back years like that,’’ said John D’Agostino, town manager in Abington, which has spent about 10 percent of last winter’s total. “We’re enjoying a year off.’’

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Last winter, public works crews across the state wrestled with one snowstorm after another, requiring a budget-crushing round of salting, plowing, and overtime.

The state Transportation Department is $14 million under budget this year and might put its surplus toward the MBTA’s budget deficit.

Springfield, which spent $2.8 million last year and was battered not just by snow but a parade of disastrous weather, has spent just over $300,000 so far this year.

“After a major tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, and an October storm, I’m grateful for any surplus we might have,’’ said LeeAnn Pasquini, the budget director. The city will spend extra funds on other expenses or save them for future needs.

Communities rarely have money left over from snow budgets, which are typically set artificially low and increased as needed. State law allows communities to exceed their budgets for snow removal if they address the deficit the next fiscal year.

“The mild winter is helping towns pay off last year,’’ said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “They aren’t getting a windfall.’’

Snow removal costs are difficult to forecast and vary sharply with the type and timing of various storms. Those that dump snow in the evening or on a weekend or holiday, for example, require overtime, causing costs to rise sharply.

So while communities are smiling at their good fortune, plow drivers are counting their losses. “For town officials, this winter is great,’’ said Catherine Laurent, public works director in Mashpee on Cape Cod. “I’m not sure about the employees and contractors.’’

In a typical Mashpee winter, workers might plow the roads four times and sand them a dozen, she said. This year, they plowed once, after a January storm dropped 10 inches that quickly melted, and sanded them just three other times.

With snow equipment idle across the state, workers have had time for repairs. In Arlington, crews have caught up on tree pruning and sidewalk repairs that typically wait until spring. In Hull, crews have rehabbed aging plows and sanding trucks that took a beating last winter, preparing them for the next storm, said Joseph Stigliani, public works director.

Boston has had less than 8 inches of snow this winter compared with more than 6 feet at this time last year. The city will steer any surplus funds toward deficits and unexpected expenses, such as emergency crews during Tropical Storm Irene and overtime for police officers at the Occupy Boston protest in Dewey Square.

Still, even mild winters carry costs. Towns buy their supply of road treatment in advance, and crews often treat the roads in anticipation of snow, even if little ends up sticking.

“If we get a little squall and it freezes, we have to salt it,’’ D’Agostino said. “The salt alone is expensive.’’

Public works crews have taken the chance to get a jump start on spring. Since December, crews in Boston have filled 2,500 potholes, performed 600 sidewalk repairs, and continued to sweep streets. In Framingham, crews have been cleaning culverts, repairing street signs, and generally “catching up on things,’’ Sellers said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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