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Area cities: budgeting snow removal requires a crystal ball

Budgeting for snow removal is far from precise, and that’s precisely because no one can predict the weather.

Area cities budget differently for snow removal. For example, Lake Shore budgets $35,000 per year for snow removal, which includes sand and salt supplies, as well as a contract for plowing services. At the end of 2012, the city had $22,000 left in the snow removal budget. 2013 was a different story.

A snowy spring resulted in the city being over budget by $5,500, and that number climbed another $12,000 after a snowy December.

“For the most part the budget balances out year to year,” said City Clerk Patti McDonald.

In Pequot Lakes and Nisswa, snow removal costs are built into the maintenance department budgets. Costs include fuel, sand/salt, and personnel.

“You look back and hope,” Mike Loven, Pequot Lakes public works supervisor, said regarding budgeting based on past history.

“Last year we had a lot of snow. We were way over (budget) on our fuel because we were out that many more times,” he said.

The city was over budget by about $2,000 for snow removal supplies like salt and sand, as well as for fuel. The city also incurs fees for repairs on equipment, whether it be mowers in summer or plows in winter.

The biggest snow removal cost factor varies. If a storm brings ice, the cost is for salt and sand. If a storm brings snow, fuel may be the biggest cost.

“If it does snow, it depends on the time,” Loven said. “In a perfect world it would snow at the same time every day.”

Public works employees work 40 hours per week, so if a storm occurs at the end of the work week, it could result in overtime. Most employees opt for comp time, though, Loven said.

In Nisswa, the city was able to hold over some salt/sand to supplement 2013, said Tom Blomer, public works supervisor.

“The spring of 2013 was above average for plowing costs, but this fall and winter we really only had one large snow event that put down the majority of our snow. Otherwise we have had several half to 2-inch events that we were able to combine and plow during our regular work hours,” Blomer said.

The city ended up with about an extra 5 percent of overtime wages from the previous couple of years. Other cost factors are extra salt, extra equipment repairs and extra road repairs in the spring because of mechanical and chemical damage snow removal causes.

Blomer said each time the city plows its routes, it uses between $800 and $1,000 for fuel. The city spent double that in December because it had to go out twice.

“The equipment itself is a huge cost,” Blomer said. “A typical new plow truck that we use costs between $175,000 and $200,000 with those costs rising rapidly due in large part to increased diesel emission controls required on the new trucks.”

A perfect snow event is when the city doesn’t have any significant breakdowns and can plow overnight and in the early morning to avoid traffic.

Crosslake Public Works Director Ted Strand said that for much of December, it seemed like the city was plowing every other day.

He said Crosslake plows anytime there’s more than two inches of snow. The nuisance snows the area saw, which dropped a half inch to an inch at a time, made work difficult. To save costs, Strand said his team sometimes waits until there’s a buildup before hitting the roads.

“We try to do everything over two inches but you have to react to the situation,” he said.

Often crews work in the middle of the night, starting work at 2 or 3 a.m. Each time the Crosslake plowing crew goes out, Strand said, it takes more than 200 gallons of fuel.

All those costs add up, and that makes budgeting for the year difficult. Strand shares the same sentiment as other area cities: No one knows how many flakes will fall.

“It’s a crystal ball. You try to guess, and get as close as you can, and you hope you’ve got enough to cover it,” Strand said.

It can also be difficult to predict what’s going to break down, how the cutting edges on the plows will wear, and how much salt and sand will be needed. The extreme cold weather means work take longer, meaning higher personnel costs to clear the roads.

Strand said the 2013 budget could be thrown off by the amount of snow and a recent purchase — the city bought a new plow truck. It’s a demo model the city had a chance to purchase at a reduced rate, which Strand said will save the city in the long run. Strand didn’t yet have a final bottom line for the city’s plowing budget.

Breezy Point Public Works Director Dave Szymanski said Breezy Point also has a guideline of plowing after two inches of snow, but said the plows will go out even if it’s a little less than that.

Szymanski said the city had plowed six times by the end of December, and had been out more than that to hit specific areas.

“It seems like there’s always a flake in the air,” he said.

Like all area cities, though, the plows are out after a snow.

“We do whatever we’ve got to do,” Szymanski said.