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As the snow piles up, budgets feel the strain

Salt shortage mixes in more troubles

Snow was kicked up as a snowplow truck cleared a street in North Andover this month.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Snow was kicked up as a snowplow truck cleared a street in North Andover this month.

This winter has brought about 50 inches of snow, a shortage of road salt, a rash of fender-benders, and snow removal budgets in the red.

Boston-area residents pride themselves as a hardy bunch, but the bone-chilling temperatures and waves of snow have some looking toward the sky for a solution.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Vehicles pushed through a flooded intersection in Salisbury last month.

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“We’re hoping that the sun will come out and help do the job that our guys on the ground are doing, storm after storm after storm,” said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, whose city has spent $1.2 million on snow removal, almost $600,000 more than was budgeted.

While the state allows cities and towns to carry over the costs to clear snow and treat ice into the next fiscal year, Kirk — like other municipal leaders — knows the money will have to come from somewhere else in the city’s 2015 budget.

“We’re actively looking for ways to make up the difference,” she said.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Trucks with snowplows lined up on a ramp near Interstate 95 in Weston during a snowstorm last month.

Across the region, mayors and town officials are tallying the extra funds they’ve had to spend to plow, salt, and sand. While some communities will be able to pay the extra bills with existing surplus funds, others — like Brockton — already are stretched thin, and will have to pay snow removal bills with funds from next year’s budget.

“We’re about $1 million in the hole,” said Bob Buckley, a spokesman for Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter.

‘We’re hoping that the sun will come out and help do the job that our guys on the ground are doing, storm after storm after storm.’

CAROLYN KIRK, Gloucester mayor 
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In Quincy, the city has spent $2 million on snow removal, $500,000 more than budgeted. Chris Walker, a spokesman for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, said the city would pay for the extra plowing with surplus budget funds from this year. He said the city was prepared for the deficit, and in recent years raised its snow budget from $300,000 to $1.5 million in order to be financially pragmatic about snowfall.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

In Wellesley earlier this month, a man walked down the sidewalk on Central Street after a storm left a foot of snow.

Newton officials said the city was still within its snow budget. “We still have close to $1.5 million,” said Maureen Lemieux, the city’s chief financial officer, who added that Newton had spent $4.3 million of its $5.8 million snow budget. Like Quincy, the city has boosted its snow budget in recent years; in 2010, the city allocated just $1 million for snow removal.

Still, with March approaching, Newton was headed toward unchartered spending. “We have never spent more than $5 million in a winter. I have no idea where we’re going to land,” said Lemieux.

The snow budget blues stretched to Framingham, which also has more than doubled its snow budget since 2010. Still, the town blew through its funds earlier this month, and has spent $1.9 million this year, $400,000 over budget. Mary Ellen Kelley, Framingham’s chief financial officer, said the town would pay its extra bills with surplus funds, and plans to recommend that the town boost its snow budget to $1.6 million next year.

According to the town, a typical hour of snow removal — which includes town workers, contractors, and salt — costs Framingham $16,855.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

In Framingham on Tuesday, rescue workers comforted an injured cow after a barn collapsed.

In Braintree, last week’s snowstorms pushed the town’s spending on snow removal this winter to $800,000, double its original budget of $400,000.

“We have to keep our streets safe and clear, and that’s the priority,” said Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, who added the $400,000 budgeted this year was the largest amount he could recallin his long career as a city official. Last winter, the town set aside $350,000 but had to pay more than $850,000 to clean up after a series of storms.

Sullivan said the town would pay its snow bills with funds from reserve accounts and free cash within the existing budget. “Luckily, we’re fairly healthy financially,” Sullivan said, although he wished the money could be put toward other priorities, like education. “We’ll be able to manage.”

As snow days have piled up — pushing the school year into late June — motorists and walkers have tried to avoid patches of ice that have formed over the winter. Usually, plows salt the streets at the beginning of storms. But in recent weeks, a lack of salt has forced some cities to ration their supplies.

In Salem, where the city has spent $832,000 on snow removal — $432,000 over budget — Public Works director John Tomasz said he usually uses about 1,000 tons of salt for a 6-inch snowstorm. Last week, he was down to 200 tons, and as he waited for a new shipment, was forced to mix some of the remaining salt with sand during last Monday’s storm.

Tomasz acknowledged that combination wasn’t ideal to treat heavy, wet snow. “Without the salt, roads stay icy and the snow stays longer, too,” he said.

Salem, like about 45 percent of other Massachusetts cities and towns, buys its salt from Eastern Minerals in Chelsea, where Paul Lamb, Eastern’s general manager, said the company was trying to keep up with demand.

“The amount of snowstorms that we’ve had has driven the usage up,” said Lamb, who is expecting up to 300,000 additional tons of salt to be delivered and distributed to the municipalities. Last week, he received two salt shipments totaling over 100,000 tons from Mexico, and he’s expecting another two salt boats to arrive this week in Chelsea.

The salt shortage also pushed Wrentham to announce it would limit its use to main roads, hills, intersections, and bus turnarounds. Wrentham’s Department of Public Works also has curtailed its policy of providing salt to residents.

Quincy was not impacted by the recent salt shortage. Last year it built a new salt shed at its DPW facility on Sea Street, and the city keeps about 6,000 tons in reserve in the shed, said Walker. With 244 miles of roadway to clear, Walker estimated that each foot of snow cost the city about $550,000 to remove.

Across the region, snow has also contributed to fender benders and other incidents. In Framingham last Wednesday, a barn roof bearing heavy snow collapsed, killing two dairy cows.

Massachusetts State Police Lieutenant Daniel Richards said the state had yet to compile accident statistics along the Mass Pike and other major highways, but said troopers have responded to numerous spinouts that have left motorists on the side of the road. He said most of the accidents have occurred at the beginning of the storms, during morning or evening rush-hours.

“We talk about clearing snow off your vehicle, having a full tank of gas, having a fully charged cellphone, and bringing with you the things you might need should you be stranded in order to stay warm, such as a blanket, water, or a flashlight,” said Richards.

Globe correspondents Dan Adams and Abby Jordan contributed to this article. Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
com
. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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