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Weekend storms sap local budgets

A line of plows worked to clear the roads in Hatfield during the blizzard. Overtime expenses can force smaller towns on a thin financial margin to cut back in other areas.

Matthew Cavanaugh

A line of plows worked to clear the roads in Hatfield during the blizzard. Overtime expenses can force smaller towns on a thin financial margin to cut back in other areas.

For all their wearisome hassle, this month’s winter storms have at least had the courtesy to arrive on weekends, sparing commuters slick, snarled rides to work.

But that timing is proving decidedly inconvenient for Massachusetts communities that must shell out costly overtime pay to have the streets plowed in a month that could break snowfall records.

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With a sizable storm expect­ed for a third straight weekend, potentially hitting the region with nearly a foot of snow beginning Saturday night, officials are nervously watching their ledgers.

“Most communities have pretty much exhausted the snow removal budget, and are looking with trepidation at the rest of the winter,” said Geoff Beckwith, who directs the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “The timing of the storms has been problematic.”

The massive scale of the early February storm, which dropped more than 2 feet of snow on the area, carried disproportionate costs, officials say. Cities and towns had to bring in every plow driver they could, many of whom stayed on the road for well over a day. And for days ­after the storm, crews had to ­remove snow piled high on the roadside.

“There’s no place to put it,” said Tom Moses, chief financial officer in Lowell, which has ­already exceeded its $1.3 million budget for snow removal, even as bills from the blizzard continue to trickle in.

Communities can exceed snow budgets to keep the roads clear and often budget on the low side in hope of an easy winter. Towns make up the shortfall by shifting funds from other accounts or rolling the deficit into the next year’s budget.

Somerville, for instance, budgeted just $650,000 for snow removal this winter, and spent more than $400,000 on the blizzard. Everett allocated just $190,000 for the entire season.

But the money has to come from somewhere, and at a time of growing fiscal pressure, a succession of winter storms comes as grim news.

“I have to keep the budget, so this doesn’t make me happy,” said Michael Thoreson, public works commissioner in ­Brockton, which has spent more than two-thirds of its $2.3 million budget.

Officials say nothing draws complaints faster than slow or shoddy snow removal, and there are few ways to trim costs without sacrificing performance. So for towns who have little financial wiggle room, costs are not only unpredictable, but unavoidable.

“There’s not a lot of extra money lying around,” Thoreson said.

Less than 10 inches of snow fell in Boston last winter, making it one of the mildest in memory. And when little snow fell in December and January, hopes for a repeat swelled.

But nearly 3 feet of snow fell in February, putting the record of 41 inches well within reach. On Wednesday, forecasters said they were increasingly confident that another storm is on its way.

“There is a growing potential for a plowable snow event this weekend,” said meteorologist Bill Simpson of the National Weather Service.

Forecasters said that the snow could be heavier across the interior, while the coast could receive a mix of snow and rain.

The prospect of another weekend storm and another round of time-and-a-half payments had many hoping for a reprieve.

“Last year we spent hardly anything,” Thoreson mused. “But the last three weekends have gotten us. Everything we do is on overtime.”

Boston has spent more than $15 million on snow removal so far, nearly all of it on the massive storm two weeks ago. Its budget is slightly less than $18 million, but officials can tap other surplus accounts.

“We clearly budget on the conservative side when it comes to Mother Nature,” said Meredith Weenick, the city’s chief financial officer.

With much of the snow ­removal done on a contract ­basis, overtime costs are a small fraction of the overall expense, she said.

At the state level, the Transportation Department has spent just over $60 million this winter for snow operations, accord­ing to the latest count, well over last year’s $42 million.

The department has a $45 million budget and a $30 million contingency fund.

Attesting to the unpredictability of New England winters, spending has seesawed in ­recent years, from $41 million in fiscal year 2007 to $127 million in fiscal year 2009.

While the state and large cities have the means to handle harsh winters, smaller towns on a thin financial margin can be forced to cut back in other areas.

“If you have a really bad winter, you are paying for it in budget cuts in the following year,” Beckwith said. “White snowflakes melt into red ink.”

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Lauren Dezenski and Todd Feathers contributed to this ­report. Peter Schworm can
be reached at schworm@
globe.com
. Follow him on
Twitter @globepete.
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