Snowy week strains Portland budget

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PORTLAND — Sunshine this week should do some good for dispositions, and definitely help the city’s finances.

“The biggest ally we’ve had is that round thing shining in the sky,” city Public Works Director Chris Branch said Feb. 17 as he assessed the effects from close to 3 feet of snow that fell in storms from Feb. 9-16.

A Feb. 12-13 storm that dropped 2 or more feet in some Maine communities “spared” the city with 16 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Yet before that storm, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said, there was $416,000 left in Public Works’ $1.16 million winter operations budget. Branch said he would have a clearer picture of where the department stood on Tuesday, after payroll is calculated.

“I suspect we spent a sizable portion of what’s remaining,” he said.

Branch said he is less worried about fuel costs, which were estimated at a higher rate than the city is paying, or about running out of salt and sand for the roads.

The budget allocated $377,000 for payroll, with $344,700 set aside to pay overtime for employees who work as many as 16 hours a day clearing storms.

At the height of big storms, Branch said, there can be more than 40 plow trucks on the road, with seven operated by private contractors. Some contractors are also used to help load snow that is hauled to dumping areas on Cutter Street near East End Beach; on land off outer Congress Street; on private land on West Commercial Street, and behind the Maine Turnpike Authority headquarters.

The city has also been using the median on Franklin Street, and crews will also push piles to the center of Spring and Commercial streets.

This year’s winter operations budget was increased from $1.09 million last year, although the department sought an increase to $1.34 million.

Branch said planning is fluid, with the expectation of eight storms requiring plowing and at least a dozen more requiring sanding.

“This will be my 20th winter as a public works director where I have snow to deal with,” said Branch, who was hired in Portland in June 2016. “One thing I have learned is, they are all different. You have to look at the averages.”

With nearly 63 inches of snow this year, the city has already exceeded its annual average of about 62 inches. 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Litchfield resident Megan Holland and her son, Ashton, prepare to cross Commercial Street in Portland on Feb. 16.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.