Mild winter leaves money in Maine municipal budgets

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Public Works Director Robert Malley finds it a bit strange his crews are already preparing to mow grass.

Usually at this time they are busy cleaning up the remnants of winter, sweeping streets and putting everything back in order for the warmer seasons ahead.

Instead, thanks to a mild winter, “everything’s a month ahead of schedule,” Malley said.

The Cape Elizabeth Public Works crews aren’t alone, and town officials aren’t alone in finding savings because the winter season demanded far less snow removal than in recent years.

Towns throughout greater Portland report savings of up to $300,000 each, largely in leftover supplies and overtime hours that weren’t logged in winter.

Malley, whose department cares for 59 miles of roads and sidewalks, said Cape Elizabeth saved more than $100,000 in fuel, sand, salt and reduced overtime hours. That money goes back into the town’s general fund.

Michael Bobinsky, Portland Public Services director, said the city has $300,000 left from its $1 million budget for snow removal, primarily from savings in salt, fuel and overtime.

The department buys 8,000 tons of salt each year, but used only 4,000 tons this winter, Bobinsky said. He said salt costs nearly $60 per ton.

While Peter Owen, public works director in Bath, didn’t have exact estimates of how much the city saved because of mild weather, he said he knows those savings didn’t come in the form of salt – there were just enough snow removal events to keep his crews busy.

“Whether you get 1 inch or 10 inches of snow, you still have to put down salt,” he said.

However, Owen said Bath “saved pretty significantly with overtime.” He said crews only performed overnight downtown snow removals twice, as opposed to seven to eight times during winters with more snow.

Owen said there is another area where the city may have saved money, but a dollar amount is hard to estimate: repairing damaged equipment.

“You tend to hit a lot of things with plows,” he said, noting the city’s equipment required few repairs this year.

In Brunswick, Public Works Director John Foster said there were savings in overtime, contracted plowing, sand and salt. He said $160,000 remains from the $468,000 snow removal budget.That money will shift to the city’s general fund.

Foster said his crews will begin crosswalk striping within the next week, close to a month ahead of schedule.

“We’re well on our way to getting our streets all swept,” he said. “That’s given us a good jump.”

Unlike in many towns where budget savings go back into the general fund, Chebeague Island Town Administrator Eric Dyer said he’s looking to use the town’s “significant” savings to create a “rolling bank” to fund future plowing and materials expenses.

Dyer said the town budgeted $35,000 for winter road materials, but spent only about $10,800, for a 70 percent savings. That savings was a good thing, he said, because the town overspent its budget to transport those materials to the island on a barge.

The town budget allocated $10,000 for the barge, but the actual expense was $12,500, Dyer said.

Chebeague Island also saved by spending $2,600 of its $10,000 overtime budget for snow removal on three miles of gravel road and nine miles of paved road.

“It’s been great, I hope it continues,” Dyer said. “It helps us run the town more efficiently.”

Scarborough Public Works Director Mike Shaw said the town had some savings in overtime and fuel, but his crews still had to treat roads frequently.

Shaw said there were mornings where residents may have let a thin layer of snow melt from their driveways without shoveling, but public works crews had no choice but to make sure streets were safe for commuters.

 “The events were shorter in duration. The number of times we were out wasn’t much different than in previous years,” he said.

Cumberland Finance Director Alex Kimball said the town experienced some savings, “but it wasn’t enormous.” While overtime was under budget, the higher cost of diesel cancelled any potential savings in fuel, he said.

Kimball said the town spent $90,000 of its $95,000 budget for road salt.

“We had to put down a lot of salt this year,” he said. “… Not a lot of snow does not necessarily mean the crews aren’t out there.”

Despite the savings this  year, Owen, the Bath public works director, said towns and cities can’t count on mild winters in the future.

“It was a light winter,” he said. “It was helpful, but it certainly shouldn’t be seen as the way we should budget. It could be extreme next year.”

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.