Rough winter puts stress on local salt, sand budgets

MIDDLEBURY — Persistent snowy, icy and slushy conditions this winter have taken a wicked toll on municipal sand and salt budgets, to the extent some communities have exhausted their allotted resources with still a month or more of potentially treacherous weather left to deal with.
Winter road maintenance figures supplied to the Independent by a sampling of Addison County communities revealed:
•  The town of Middlebury had budgeted $130,000 for salt and $25,000 for sand for fiscal year 2019 — the period between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. As of the end of February, the town had spent $131,981 on salt and $24,335 on sand. Also, the town had paid out $29,726 in winter-related overtime wages; $30,000 was budgeted for that purpose.
•  In Cornwall, officials had budgeted $15,000 for sand. As of last week, the town had spent $18,103 for that purpose, leaving a deficit of $3,103 entering March. Meanwhile, the community has spent $12,168 of its $16,000 salt budget, leaving a balance of $3,832.
•  Vergennes City Manager Matt Chabot on Feb. 19 reported the Little City was “about a salt shaker away” from exhausting its $50,000 budget for winter maintenance materials. The city had spent $48,055 at the time.
•  As of Thursday, Salisbury had over-spent, by $1,500, its fiscal year 2019 salt budget of $58,000.
Salisbury officials had budgeted a total of $25,000 for sand this winter. The town’s overall spending for sand was at around $25,400 as of Feb. 28, according to town Treasurer Brenda Burchard.
It should be stressed these figures don’t mean communities will stop running snow plows and salt attachments after all of the budgeted money has been spent. Service will continue. It just means municipalities will need to find additional resources through past highway budget surpluses (if they have them), by shifting funds from other parts of the budget that are performing better, or by retroactively covering their winter salt/sand deficits during fiscal year 2020.
Middlebury Director of Operations Bill Kernan provided some insights into how this winter has been affecting winter road maintenance in the county’s shire town.
The town of Middlebury essentially maintains six primary plowing routes broken up by location and type of road, served by six large, single- and tandem-axel trucks. The community also uses a smaller, one-ton pickup equipped with plow and portable spreader to assist with tight areas downtown, including parking lots, according to Kernan.
Kernan said the department contracts winter maintenance services for what he described as “a number of outlying areas (that) are difficult to incorporate into a regular route.” Middlebury budgeted $7,500 for contractual services for FY’19 and had spent $28,265 on such services as of last week, according to town officials.
“The nature of the storm events this year resulted in some very long days for staff creating an overtime burden in excess of 60 hours per employee during some weeks,” he said through an email. “Due to several back-to-back storms, the highway crew was not able to break away from keeping the roads clear in order to perform a downtown cleanup of stockpiled snow so this had to be contracted out.”
Middlebury usually goes into the winter season with a healthy stockpile of both salt and sand, according to Kernan.
“These stockpiles are currently quite diminished, which could possibly result in budget overruns in the next fiscal year since the budget has already been set,” he said.
“The town keeps a stockpile of material available for use by town residents free of charge and this needed to be replenished more frequently than in years past.”
The surging cost of both sand and salt is also adding to the cost overruns, officials said.
Current sand prices are 50 cents per ton higher that last year’s bid price, which reflects and 5.5-percent increase, according to Kernan. And Middlebury is paying $8.88 more per ton for salt than last year’s bid price, reflecting a 12.7-percent hike, he added.
More storms means more intensive use of plow trucks. Middlebury’s highway department vehicles used 1,165 more gallons of fuel this past January than during the same month last year, according to Kernan.
He noted icy conditions have also led to more extensive sidewalk maintenance, which he said has taken “a sizeable toll” on salt stockpiles.  The town maintains 16 miles of sidewalk and each sidewalk machine has a three-quarter-yard hopper, which needs to be refilled several times throughout the day.
Adding to this season’s challenges have been several freeze-thaw events that have required additional maintenance of gravel roads, according to Kernan.
“Once the top surface of the road thaws out and refreezes, all of the previously applied sand is rendered useless and the entire road needs to be treated again,” he explained.
The North Branch Road in East Middlebury, Kernan said, becomes particularly treacherous during icing events and requires constant attention.
“It takes two full tandem loads of sand to make it to the top of the road and during active events this is a non-stop process of application after application until the event is over,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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