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Federal aid little relief for southern Maine budgets buried by snow

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Federal aid little relief for southern Maine budgets buried by snow

PORTLAND — Federal aid is on the way to municipalities in four Maine counties hit by a February blizzard.

The immensity of the Feb. 8 storm stretched public works winter operations budgets thin, with many towns now operating on reserves.

A survey of cities and towns in southern Maine found public works departments are stressed from snow removal and storm operations, and may have to delay planned spring projects.

But now, in response to a request from Gov. Paul LePage, the federal government has designated Maine's record-setting storm a disaster, opening up $3.5 million in aid to Cumberland, Androscoggin, Knox, and York counties.

And although the aid announced Monday comes as a relief to strained municipal budgets, the money will likely take months to be distributed.

Cumberland County could receive $1.73 million of the aid, with Portland getting nearly half, or $783,000, based on population and cost per capita.

The blizzard was the single largest snowstorm in Maine's history, dumping nearly a third of season's total, 31.9 inches, at Portland International Jetport. The previous single-storm record was 27.1 inches in 1979.

Most of the winter's heavy storms, including the February blizzard, landed on weekends. The overtime put extra stress on already strained budgets.

"We've spent a lot of money," said Chris Bolduc, Cumberland public works director. "The weekend storms kind of beat us up. We had four or five weekends in a row."

Cumberland has used 240 overtime hours just for plowing, Bolduc said. The town's total budgeted departmental overtime for all operations is only 200 hours.

Other extra costs that pile up along with the snow include additional fuel and equipment maintenance from heavy use, and depending on the temperature and time of year, extra salting and sanding.  

The heavy snowfall has put more of a burden on Portland's Public Services department than most other municipalities, due to the amount of snow removal – not just plowing – required to keep the city's streets clear.

Michael Bobinsky, the city's Public Services director, said typically the department budgets about $700,000 for winter operations. This year it will be pushing $1 million before it's all over.

The department is now operating at 108 percent of its budget – not including the most recent snowstorm on March 19, which added about another 10 inches to the snowfall total. It has spent $110,000 more on overtime this year compared to last year, Bobinsky said, bringing the 2012-2013 overtime total to $331,000.

The Feb. 8 blizzard alone cost the city $440,000.

"It was very much an expensive storm and dangerous storm," Bobinsky said.

And there could still be more.

Although it's officially spring, snow in Maine isn't dictated by the season, said Michael Cempa, meteorologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration office in Gray.

"Certainly during the first week of April we can get snowstorms," Cempa said, noting snow also falls early, referencing a snowstorm last year in October. "Past mid-April, getting any measurable amount of snowfall starts to get very low, but I wouldn't rule out anything in first half of April."

The public works departments are not counting out the possibility either. Town officials are hesitant to make any of their expenses final until late next month. 

"I really don't think I want to do that yet. I'm afraid I'll jinx it," Bolduc said in Cumberland. "We could still have one of those April Fool's Day storms."

But, despite being hit with 97.8 inches of snowfall since October in the Portland area as of Monday, this season's snowfall total only ranks 18th since record-keeping began in the 1880s, Cempa said.

The most snow the southern Maine coast has ever seen was in the 1970-1971 season, when an average of 114 inches was recorded, according to the NOAA.

On average, the Portland area gets about 57 inches of snow every season. Last year – one of the warmest on record – the state had an average of 41.7 inches, according to NOAA, with about 13 of those inches coming in one March storm. And that storm was almost immediately followed by 70-degree weather.

Plowing veterans said this season's snowfall has been more typical of the winters Maine used to experience. It also stands in stark contrast to last year, when total snowfall was more than 15 inches less than the average total.

"It's been a pretty normal season. We just haven't had one in awhile," said Erik Street, Yarmouth public works director.

Cape Elizabeth Public Works Director Bob Malley said the federal aid will reimburse his town for equipment costs and overtime. While overall the town has managed to avoid major overruns, the federal funding will help, especially if there's another storm.

"Our overtime budget is getting close and we obviously can't sustain any more weekend storms," Malley said. "Hopefully there's light at the end of the tunnel. ... (But) we're not out of the woods yet."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.