Snowy winter takes a bite out of towns’ budgets
A Washington Street Department truck plows East Wheeling Street on a recent snowy morning.
Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
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Rick Dorsey chuckles a bit when he hears people talking about it being a hard winter with the unrelenting snow over the past few months.
Instead, the East Finley Township roadmaster takes solace in his belief that this is merely a “more normal winter” compared to previous years.
“Everyone has been spoiled up until now with those easy winters before,” Dorsey said. “That’s how we look at it.”
However, the winter has undoubtedly taken a toll on municipal salt piles as many communities are experiencing a shortage and are rationing road materials. But less obvious is the havoc it’s wreaking on overtime budgets and the wear on road crews.
Dorsey admitted the township likely will double its original overtime budget of $10,000, which means less road paving in the summer.
And the problem is even greater in Washington, where the city spent 80 percent of its overtime budget in January and used about 70 percent of its stock supply funds. Councilman Ken Westcott, the city’s public works director, is especially concerned that another “snow episode” could bust the budget and leave city officials with hard choices for the rest of the year that likely will hit the city’s street paving plans.
He praised the seven members of the crew for their work, but admitted this winter is taking a physical toll on them, especially when they finish a shift and are called out minutes later when another snow band rolls through.
“They’ve been working their tails off,” Westcott said. “They’re worn thin. We need a break.”
With 39.6 inches of snow recorded in Washington since Oct. 1, this winter has been more intense than average by more than a foot of accumulation. Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, noted there’s been less accumulation than last year, when Washington received 46.6 inches of snow.
Westcott said it isn’t the accumulation, but the barrage of storms and subzero temperatures that are causing the biggest problems.
“This one just hasn’t gone away,” Westcott said. “It’s been nonstop snow and ice.”
Other towns experienced similar problems, but not to the same extent.
South Strabane Township Manager John Stickle said overtime payments are at the same levels as this time last year because of “nuisance storms” both years. That is causing the township to keep a closer eye on its salt budget after spending nearly one-third of it in the first month of the year. Township leaders fattened up that line item by about 10 percent to $135,000 this year, which has helped to avoid major problems.
“We really didn’t anticipate this big of a winter,” Stickle said. “We wish we didn’t have to spend that money on the salt and cinders.”
The increased costs of snow removal and road materials will definitely have an impact on Waynesburg Borough’s budget, said Mike Simms, borough manager.
The borough already has ordered 400 tons of salt to treat borough roads this winter, though it has not yet received all of it, said Simms, who became borough manager in May and is facing his first winter season. Last year, the borough purchased about 200 tons all winter and had some left over, he said.
Borough crews also have racked up 81 hours in overtime as of Feb. 1. Though he didn’t have figures from last year, Simms said he imagines it was much less during last year’s mild winter.
The borough uses its liquid fuel money to fund snow removal and its summer paving projects. Because of the costs of the paving projects completed last summer, as well as the increased cost of snow removal this winter, Simms said he believes this summer’s paving will have to be greatly curtailed.
In Somerset Township, it’s the public works equipment that is taking the biggest beating. Dave Blackburn, who is on the township’s board of supervisors and director of the road crew, said the township has two trucks in the shop that will require costly repairs.
“That’s eating into the budget,” Blackburn said.
As far as the wear and tear on the crew, Blackburn thinks they’re managing just fine, with some of the workers requesting compensatory time rather than overtime pay.
“(The overtime budget) isn’t that much of an issue,” Blackburn said. “Some of those guys really like having that time off during the summer.”
After this frigid winter, Blackburn said, the summer can’t get here soon enough.
Greene County staff writer Bob Niedbala contributed to this report.