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Tough Winter Stretching Maine Plowing Budgets Thin
02/11/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

Municipal and state officials in Maine are crossing their fingers that this week's expected snowstorm is not as severe as some are predicting. That's because snow removal and ice budgets are, in many cases, running close to empty. With more than six weeks to go until winter is officially over, Maine cities and towns are trying to figure out how to stretch those already strapped resources. Tom Porter has more.

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Portland snow plows

Eric Conrad says many towns and cities are trying to be as careful as they can with what remains of their road-clearing resources. Conrad is communications director with the Maine Municipal Association.

"One thing we're noticing is that at least a few municipalities around the state have stopped the practice of allowing people to come to their transfer stations, let's say, and get free sand," Conrad says. "They're running very low on sand and salt supplies and they need to make sure the roads are clear. That's their priority."

In some cases, towns and cities have reserve funds left over from previous years when they came in under budget. But, says Conrad, those reserves don't provide much of a cushion.

"In light of what towns and cities have been going through financially in recent years with, among other things, the reduction of state revenue-sharing funds, those reserves are low," he says. "But in many cases they still exist, and they can tap into these at least once or twice to get through a tough winter."

And this seems to be the way the city of Lewiston is headed, says Director of Public Works David Jones. "As would it be expected we've used a lot of our budget," he says. "We're not over yet, but it's early in February, so I suspect before the end of the winter we'll actually exceed what out budget calls for."

Jones job during the winter months is to make sure that 180 miles of roads and 50 miles of sidewalks are cleared of snow and ice. To achieve this, he has a budget just shy of $1 million, about 50 employees and 34 snow-removal vehicles.

Jones says they've already got through about 80 percent of this season's budget, leaving the department with enough cash to handle about another two major storms - storms which would ideally come during the working week, he says, because nearly 90 percent of his over-time budget is already used up.

"If we expend all the funds then we actually continue doing what we need to do as far as the snow removal," he says, "and then we actually rectify at the end of the year with the finance department."

"We can't say, 'Sorry, we're not plowing today. We're out of money,'" says Lewiston Finance Director Heather Hunter. She says it's been five or six years since the city coffers were subject to this kind of weather-related pressure. She leaves open the possibility that other public works projects may have to be scaled back if the winter continues to be a tough one.

"We would put into effect some curtailment efforts, but so far we have not had the need to do that quite yet," Hunter says.

The pressure is also being felt at the state level, where the Maine Department of Transportation is responsible for the maintenance of more than 8,200 miles of roads. DOT spokesman Ted Talbot says Maine had got through more than 90,000 tons of salt by the end of January, and he anticipates using another 35,000 to 40,000 tons before the snows melt - the most used since the winter of '07 - '08.

Expenditure on snow and ice removal, he says, is up more than 25 percent compared with last year.

"So far this year, the Maine Department of Transportation has spent in excess of $21 million for the snow-fighting efforts. That includes the snow, the ice, the sleet, keeping the roads as clear as possible," Talbot says. "On average, it's around $15.7 million. So we, like other Northeastern states, are seeing increased costs due to the type of winter we're having."

Helping to drive up costs, says Talbot, are the ice storms the state has experienced this year. "Increased costs with ice storms are quite significant, compared to just a snow event," he says. "When ice happens, we deploy over 375 trucks statewide, if it's a statewide event."

If the rest of the winter continues on its current track, Talbot says it's likely the increased cost of snow and ice removal will mean certain spring and summer activities - for example, tree-clearing and signage - will have to be curbed. But, he says, that's a decision to be made after the winter.

File photo of Portland plow trucks: Chris Sweet


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