Budgeting for Winter Road Maintenance

Budgeting for Winter Road Maintenance

(from Maine Townsman, January 1990)
by Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor

A budget is an estimate. And a rule of thumb in preparing a municipal budget, say those who do, is that you'd better not estimate low, especially when it comes to winter highways.

Put another way, the best way to avoid an overdraft, says Dick Scofield of the Maine Department of Transportation, is to "Budget in anticipation Look for the worst. Budget for the worst."

Beyond these generalities, Scofield and others contacted for this article say that the best guide for preparing a winter highway budget is to "Look To The Past."

That means keeping detailed records of overtime paid and the amount of sand and salt spread.

At this point it is interesting to note the following snowfall records supplied by the United States Weather Service for Portland. The Service has been keeping records since 1881.

Normally, on the average, the period of October through December produces 21.2 inches of snowfall. In 1957 only .9 inches of snow fell during that period, while the previous year (1956) 44.6 inches of snow fell. In 1989, a total of 20.6 inches fell during that period compared to the 3.5 inches that fell the previous year (1988).

Budgeting in the South

That's what Bill Waterman, the Public Works Director in Cumberland County's New Gloucester (population 3,180) has been doing for the past 15 years.

There is no universal formula for estimating cost for winter maintenance, explains Waterman. "Your budget has got to be based on your own experience; no two towns can come out with the same cost per mile," says Waterman, explaining that it depends on the geographic location of the town, the terrain of the roads, the size of the crew.

Waterman notes that even within the town of New Gloucester there are two different kinds of storms depending where in town you are: the northern or the southern part.

Working with a separate winter roads account, Waterman says he averages the numbers from the past ten years and then adjusts that figure to take into account any new roads built in the last year as well as any increased traffic. The town has had a high rate of growth in recent years, notes Waterman.

For it's 60 miles of roads plowed, Waterman averages about $18,000 a year in sand and salt, that's about $300 a mile in sand and salt a year for New Gloucester. While the amount is increasing, his average is about 7,000 cubic yards of sand and 400 tons of salt. The sand to salt ratio is one yard of sand to 90 to 100 pounds of salt.

According to his records, Waterman purchased 3,000 cubic yards of sand and 200 tons of salt in 1979; in 1989 he purchased 10,500 cubic yards of sand and 600 tons of salt. That's a three-fold increase in ten years!

Waterman says the increase is due mainly to two things: an increase of about 12 miles in new roads and a change in traffic patterns with cars on the road throughout the day. While 1989 had little snowfall overall, there were many ice storms at the beginning and end of the year, says Waterman.

When it comes to overtime, Waterman's records show an average of 750 hours a year.

Overtime. Waterman observes that if you have an ice storm that occurs in the evening or on weekends, you are going to spend a heck of a lot more on it than if it is a dry snow storm falling during the regular work day.

Despite his approach, Waterman found that when all was said and done in 1989, there was a $6,000 overdraft in the winter account in 1989 due to the high number of ice storms that occurred early in the year and the unusual cold and heavy snow at the end now of the year making for above average spending in the overtime account and the sand/salt account.

Working with a calendar year budget, Waterman says if it is obvious in January and February that you are overrunning the budget, then make your adjustments at the March Town Meeting; if you overrun in November and December then turn to surplus .

New Gloucester recently reduced its separate winter roads account to bare bones so that it only and truly reflects winter clearance: sand, salt and plowing. If there is an overrun, it will be immediately obvious why, explains New Gloucester Town Manager James Bennett.

Budgeting in the North

Up in Aroostook County's Houlton (population 6,766) which has about 89 miles of roads to be plowed, veteran (12 years) Public Works Superintendent Ralph Cleale does not operate with a separate winter roads account. He says he "budgets for the year" and factors in for overtime.

Working with the figure of 2,080 hours per man (40 hours a week times 52 weeks/year), he calculates his overtime by multiplying a factor of 12 percent on the total payroll which includes 14 men .

"Experience" has brought him to the 12 percent figure, he explains. "We've played around with the figure, going as low as 8 percent and as high as 15 percent over the years," he says.

Twelve percent seems to be working," says Cleale noting that despite the variations in a winter ( he is referring to a calendar year), one winter is not much different than another in Houlton which is not beset by the number of winter ice storms that the central and southern part of the state is.

Cleale notes that last year (1989) he was less than $1,000 over on a payroll of $231,000. "We were within four-tenths of one percent of the payroll; you can't get much better," he says.

As far as sand goes, that too he attributes to "experience" and that experience says that Houlton needs about 4,000 tons of sand a year; although next year he is budgeting for a slight increase up to 4,500 tons.

"A budget is an estimate. And a rule of thumb is that you had better not estimate low," says Cleale.

One advantage of working with one road account, like Houlton, instead of a separate winter and summer roads account, notes DOT's Scofield, is that if you have a hard winter you can let up somewhere else, like in paving if you have to.

Overrunning Your Budget

The Maine Legislature long ago recognized that it can be an imprecise art to estimate, for the purposes of including in the town budget, the amount of funds which will be needed for maintenance of the roads.

In 1821, it enacted what is the predecessor of today's 23 MRSA 2705 which states that a road commissioner may, with the written consent of the selectmen, overspend an amount not exceeding 15 percent of the amount budgeted.

Section 2705 states: "When the amount appropriated is not sufficient to repair the ways, a road commissioner may, with the written consent of the selectmen, employ inhabitants of the town to labor on such ways to an amount not exceeding 15 percent of the amount so appropriated and in addition thereto."

While it is clear that any overdraft will ultimately have to be approved of by the voters at a town meeting, it is not clear just what activity the overdraft can include.

If you stick with a conservative reading of the law (which was written when the snow was packed down, rather than plowed off, only the "repair" of roads is permissible and they can only be repaired by town inhabitants, notes MMA Staff Attorney Joseph Wathen.

Because the law is outdated, however, a conservative approach to it may not be very helpful, he adds. "An argument can be made today that if anything is going to cause an unexpected overdraft, it is the plowing and sanding of winter roads."

Towns have a legal duty to keep town ways in an open and safe condition (23 MRSA 3651), so a good argument can be made that the overdraft authority includes winter maintenance, says Wathen.

The law needs to be amended to reflect today's realities, he says. Until that is done, one way of dealing with the issue, he suggests, is to have one general road maintenance account which includes repairs, salting, sanding and plowing together. This way, the overdraft can be based on the entire account and used for all these purposes.