The Big Story Blog

With no snow to plow, city budgets catch a break

Posted at 10:03 AM on January 9, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Weather

MPR news reporter Jessica Mador writes how the warm weather is bringing budget relief to some Minnesota cities. Here's her report:

The New Year's snowstorm was a rare snow sighting for the Twin Cities this winter. The last six months of 2011 were the second warmest on record for the metro since 1873. In this tough budget climate, the lack of snow has helped some cities keep their spending down. jess mador has more.

Mike Kennedy has seen a lot of snow in his two decades with Minneapolis public works. At the city's garage just west of downtown, Kennedy says this winter looks very different from the last one. Some of his crews worked more than a month without a day off clearing ice and snow from the streets at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.

"Last year we had so much snow that the streets really narrowed. Traffic got dangerous," he says. "We needed to widen the streets, reclaim the driving lanes and actually haul the snow away. That is a very expensive proposition."

And much of last winter's snow fell on weekends and holidays, making it even more expensive to clear. Crews working around the clock put the city about $3 million over its $9 million annual budget by the beginning of last year. Kennedy says the mild finish to 2011 helped.

"We thought we were maybe going to be a half million dollars short or if we had an average December we'd be a million and a half overbudget, but as it turns out, this has been a real saving grace for us for the 2011 budget and so we think we'll be okay and the light winter so far will allow us to stay within budget for the calendar year 2011."

Even with the savings at the end of last year though, Kennedy stresses that Minneapolis typically burns through much of its budget just being prepared for snow and ice. The city has to have all its equipment and supplies on hand whether it snows a lot or not.

Other metro cities are also enjoying the break from several years of heavy snow.

"No question that that helps us out."

Bloomington public works maintenance superintendant Larry Tschida says his city budgets for about a dozen snow emergencies in a typical year. With much of the snow falling on weekends last winter, labor and fuel costs quickly stacked up and most of the city's budget was spent by last March. This year, he says, Bloomington crews are tackling the kinds of maintenance they couldn't get to last winter.

"This year we are ahead of the game, exactly, we've been out working on the tree trimming and working in the parks trimming trees, doing that type of thing because we have not had to do snow plowing."

It's a similar picture in the northwest metro.

Jamie Verbrugge is city manager of Brooklyn Park. That suburb also went through most of its snowplow budget in the beginning of last winter.

"So the fact that we didn't have much snow in November and December actually was really a blessing because it helped us to not go even more over budget."

Still, Brooklyn Park had to transfer about $50,000 to its snow budget last year to buy more salt because the city ran out.

Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, says some cities are waiting longer to send plows or declare a snow emergency because of difficult budgets. Last year's heavy snows were particularly challenging.

"It almost seemed like there was a conspiracy last winter that somebody up there didn't like municipal budgets and the snow did come at the most inopportune time. It's worth noting of course too that the biggest part of the cost of providing snow plowing is in the labor cost, and regardless of whether it snows a lot or hardly at all, those labor costs are for the most part fixed."

St. Paul doesn't have a final 2011 snow and ice tally yet. City Engineer John Maczko says he's hoping the light snow at the end of 2011 will mean savings. The city is likely to come out ahead at least on snow removal -- actually picking up and hauling snow away. The city did that a lot in 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Not so this winter.

"Mother Nature has done a great job melting snow for us."

But Maczo isn't ready to relax. He's been in the business of winter for too long.

"I always tell people I get nervous because I'm a firm believer in the law of averages and I'm hoping that this is an averaging out for what Mother Nature did to us last year and not a delay for the season and now we are going to get everything for the season in March and April."

So far, weather forecasts are calling for even more unseasonably mild weather.


About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.