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Deluge of snow putting strain on area road budgets

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Posted on March 14, 2011 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



snowblowing8553.jpg
A LONE PEDESTRIAN and an overworked snowplow make their way through a nearly deserted downtown Middlebury last Monday morning. This winter’s near-record snowfall has strained town budgets and forced town workers and road crews to log extra hours. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

 

ADDISON COUNTY — This winter’s relentless snowfall has not only strained residents’ patience, but it has also stretched town budgets and worn out highway workers, according to at least a small sample of local municipal officials and road foremen.

Not only have expenses for materials like sand and salt gone up, but labor costs have also risen as road crews have worked long hours trying to keep roads and sidewalks clear. Meanwhile repair bills have also mounted as equipment has been pushed to the limit.

Towns have also gotten creative in dealing with the near-record 10 feet of snow that has fallen on the county so far this winter, about four feet more than average.

Vergennes rented a feed truck from a farmer to move mounds of snow from downtown to its riverfront sewer plant. Normally, said City Manager Mel Hawley, the city’s public works employees dump snow in a School Street parking lot. But a problem developed.

“We ran out of room,” Hawley said.

Vergennes also rented construction equipment, and Shoreham turned to its farmers for equipment to help deal with its drifting snow.

Ferrisburgh road foreman John Bull, on that job since 1992, said he literally has never experienced a winter like this one.

“This will be the first year I’m over budget,” Bull said. “We’ll use every trick in the book to keep it as low as possible.”

While being good-naturedly heckled in the background by a worker during a Thursday phone interview, Bull also described what it has been like to be on a road crew this winter. He said the wife of one of his employees sent him a text earlier that day joking that Bull had to give her husband a day off because she missed him.

Seriously, Bull said he and his crew had seen a lot of each other.

“These guys have given their hearts and souls,” he said. “Since Christmas, we’ve seen each other every day ... Everybody’s tired, extremely tired.”

Bristol town administrator Bill Bryant said that town’s crew is holding up well and doing a good job. But, still, he said, they wouldn’t mind some warmer weather.

“I know they’re tired,” he said. “They’re ready to see the mud season, and mud season is not something road crews usually look forward to.”

Bryant said he usually buys breakfast for the highway crew as spring nears. That has so far proven difficult to accomplish.

“I’m ready to part with my 75 bucks to take them out to breakfast,” he said. “I just have to find a morning when they’re not moving snow.”

Taxpayers will probably have to pick up a bigger tab than for pancakes and bacon. Bryant said his town’s damage this winter has been limited because Bristol used past surpluses, many contributed by the public works department, to buy a new salt and sand shed. That building was fully stocked at the beginning of winter, and the town has not had to buy more material.

But restocking the shed will be more expensive next winter, and as of the end of February, eight months into the fiscal year, the public works’ overtime budget was 78 percent expended. And that was before the March blizzard.

“Our overtime is probably going to be pretty much shot after the storms this week,” Bryant said on Thursday.

Some paving Bristol hoped to do this spring may have to be postponed, and Bryant does not foresee the town’s public works department once again contributing to a year-end surplus.

“A lot of that money has come out of the road department. This year, I don’t think that much will be coming from the road department,” he said.

Hawley also expects paving cuts in Vergennes, citing Cataract Place and Ice House Court in particular. He said the city’s $23,000 overtime budget could be overshot by $7,000, and that the $40,000 line item for “winter materials” is receding quickly in the rear view mirror.

Not only has the city used more salt and sand, but Hawley is also accounting for rented equipment under that line item.

“The $40,000 could end up being $40,000 short,” he said.

Still, Hawley is hoping to find enough savings elsewhere in the budget not to touch a $100,000 surplus that was carried over from the city’s previous fiscal year.

“As bad as winter has been, the goal of keeping within our budget in terms of aggregate spending is still there,” Hawley said.

Bull said he will talk with selectmen about possible savings in spring road maintenance, but he is wary of cutting corners there.

“The roads have taken a beating,” he said.

And so has Ferrisburgh’s road equipment, given its heavy use. Bull said he started with $35,000 to pay for repairs, needs to spend at least $5,000 this week, and as of the end of last week had $62 left for equipment maintenance.

“I’m broke right now,” Bull said. “We’re breaking a lot of stuff.”

Because of a switch to pretreated salt, Bull said spending on materials will remain in check, but like elsewhere, overtime “is going to be an issue.”

Hawley and Bull said they have their fingers crossed going forward the weather will cooperate. Hawley said the spring thaw, if it happens too quickly, could bring problems to the city’s drainage system, while Bull said rains could mean road washouts.

Bull said Mother Nature will have the final say.

“She deals the cards. We just have to play them,” he said.

Bull said the good news is what he hears not from only Ferrisburgh residents, but also what other road foremen tell him they hear from their constituents: Residents support their efforts.

 “Everyone wants their roads taken care of,” Bull said.

 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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