Brown winter means more green for many US cities

Jan 11, 2012, 10:31 PM

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – The warm, brown winter that has disappointed snow lovers in much of the U.S. has put more green in the pockets of state and local governments that had their budgets busted last year by the high cost of keeping streets and highways clear.

Cities that normally spend millions on salt, sand and snowplows are happily saving the money for other purposes. Some are even taking advantage of the mild weather to carry on with outdoor projects that would usually have to wait until spring.

“There’s a sigh of relief,” said Chris Sagsveen, who manages road and bridge operations in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most populous because it includes Minneapolis.

In 2011, his department spent its entire snow-removal budget for the year by the end of March. He dreaded the potential for another fearsome winter. But the county barely spent a penny in the final months of 2011. So far this year, it hasn’t tapped the snow budget once.

For virtually the entire season, cold air has been bottled up over Canada. La Nina, the cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide, has nudged the jet stream farther north. And air pressure over the northern Atlantic has steered storm systems away from the East Coast.

In Minnesota and North Dakota, crews have parked their snowplows and are patching roads and highways instead. Chicago spent just $500,000 on plowing in December, down from $6 million a year earlier. In Buffalo, N.Y., public works overtime is down by 25 percent, and the city has saved more than $300,000 on salt.

Syracuse, N.Y., one of New York’s snowiest cities, has had 13 inches this winter compared to an unusually heavy 77 inches by this time last year. Public Works Commissioner Pete O’Connor said he’s saved $500,000 in salt, overtime and fuel.

“This is Mother Nature’s way and a lot of praying on my part,” O’Connor said. Instead of plowing, his crews are out collecting discarded Christmas trees, which in some years don’t emerge from snow banks until spring.

In St. Paul, where a few meager snowfalls have melted within days, the temperature hit a record 52 on Tuesday _ a reading more appropriate for April.

The story is the same across most of the country. Marathon County, Wis., spent half as much to plow snow last month as the $600,000 it forked out in December 2010. North Dakota’s snow-removal costs fell by nearly half, to $1.6 million through November. And overtime at one state shop in Bismarck plunged from almost 6,000 hours last winter to almost nothing.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., street division manager Galynn Huber was so concerned he would go over his $5.7 million budget that he asked the city council in November for an additional $1.8 million. It was approved but never spent.

“South Dakota would have all sorts of people moving here if our winters were always like this,” Huber said. The season’s cost so far? Less than $200,000.

In Michigan’s Oakland County, north of Detroit, officials hope the savings will let them spend more on new equipment and gravel to fill in roads. At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, machine-maintenance costs are plunging because plows have barely been used.

The savings extend beyond government budgets to family households.

Jim Cusick, a state employee in St. Paul, has been able to run his radiators less and catch up on an out-of-control home heating bill aggravated by the big, drafty old house where he lives with five of his six kids.

By last winter, Cusick said, he owed his utility more than $3,000 in back payments. As of this month, he said, his negative balance is down to $650.

“It’s a bummer for the kids. They miss the skating and stuff. But if winter stays mild, life will be better,” Cusick said.

At businesses that rely on heavy snow and ice to attract customers, the mild weather is most unwelcome.

Before the season began, Chicago hardware store owner Steve Lipshutz put in big orders for snow shovels and other supplies. He bought sleds for the first time. Hardly any of it has sold.

In Farmington, Conn., Karl Westerberg _ whose KDM Services sells ice-melting products _ tries to stay hopeful.

“I’m not panicking,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of winter left.”

At Buffalo Small Engine Repair, a mom-and-pop shop that gets through most winters by repairing snow blowers, the phone has “hardly been ringing,” owner Joseph Busalachi said. His normally snowy city is 24 inches below average this winter, and Busalachi said he lost $4,000 in December. January is off to an equally dismal start.

“We’ve just got to hope and pray for snow,” he said.

One man’s prayer is another man’s nightmare. Several state and local road officials shared a pessimism that the mild conditions would last.

Steve Lund, maintenance engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, didn’t even like to talk about the run of good weather for fear of jinxing it.

“We’re saving a lot of money,” he said. “But we better not be spending it yet.”


Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee; Karen Hawkins and Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Amber Hunt in Sioux Falls, S.D.; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Corey Williams in Detroit; George Walsh in Albany, N.Y.; Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Dave Collins in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Brown winter means more green for many US cities