Street departments brace for flakes

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Old Man Winter is a-knockin’, and municipalities squeezed tight during dire economic times will be hard-put to clean up his mess this year.

The cost of clearing the streets of winter ice and snow involves not only the cost of sand, salt and chemical de-icing agents, but also sub-contractor bids for plowing in some areas and public works employees’ labor and overtime costs. Often, storms strike at night or during weekends, and municipal workers clock overtime for the work they do plowing, sanding and salting.

Naugatuck, Beacon Falls and Prospect all overspent on snow removal budgets last year and are hoping for less precipitation this winter.
Naugatuck, Beacon Falls and Prospect all overspent on snow removal budgets last year and are hoping for less precipitation this winter.

In Naugatuck, the 2008-09 budget for snow removal amounted to $325,000—$125,000 each for supplies and winter overtime (street workers clock OT for hours outside the normal, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. workday) and $75,000 for sub-contractors.

But the actual expenditures last fiscal year were significantly higher than the amounts allocated, probably because Connecticut abided a decidedly unforgiving winter.

Though spending on salt and sand materials was within the $125,000 allocation, the budgets for winter overtime and sub-contractors were overspent by 88 and 121 percent, respectively. The borough paid $235,277.16 in winter overtime, $110,277.16 over budget; it paid $166,027.50 to sub-contractors, $91,027.50 over budget, according to borough Controller Wayne McAllister.

And in this tight budget year, these three accounts saw a zero percent increase in allocations.

Naugatuck Public Works Director Jim Stewart said the Street Department is trying to streamline its operations to provide an “improved” and more efficient service—but Lady Luck always plays her hand when it comes to winter storms.

“We’re certainly hoping for a less wintry winter [than last year],” Stewart said.

The borough will experiment with so-called “pre-treatment” this year. Street workers will lay out salt or Ice B’Gone prior to an impending storm, in theory preventing the formation of sheer ice layers, which plows might gloss over otherwise.

Public Works is also purchasing better sand, after numerous complaints from residents and Street Department workers.

The problem with sand in years past was its fineness; fine sand retains more water and clumps up—“You want a free-draining sand, more of a beach sand,” Stewart said.

Low-quality sand can create more work for street employees, who need to constantly clear clogs in sand hoppers and otherwise cope with a low-grade material. Workers were spending more time and using more materials—thus, expending more budget dollars—with the material than they might have with better sand.

In Prospect, $494,000 is budgeted for snow removal for the coming winter, a 6.6 percent increase from last year’s budgeted $463,000.

While this number might seem high in relation to Naugatuck’s (the larger municipality by about 2 square miles), the discrepancy is due to the fact that Prospect counts all winter labor in its ice and snow accounts. Naugatuck counts only overtime payroll in its winter line items and leaves normal labor in the yearly Street Department payroll.

Prospect Mayor Bob Chatfield, who’s also the Director of Public Works, said spending for last winter was “right around $500,000.” An exact number wasn’t available because the books are still being balanced. The $40,000 overlay was made up by the town’s general fund.

Chatfield expects the increased allocation for ice and snow removal will cover the town this winter.

He said the town’s elevation is anywhere from 870 to 950 feet above sea level, and at this higher altitude, the town is more susceptible to nasty winter storms.

“When it’s raining in Naugatuck, it’s snowing in Prospect,” he quipped.

Indeed, Naugatuck’s average elevation is roughly 75 percent lower than Prospect’s.

A free five-gallon bucket of sand for residential use is available to Prospect residents at the town garage, 221 Cheshire Road, but Chatfield urges people not to pick it up during a storm.

In Beacon Falls, a $20,000 budget for overtime wages in 2008-09 was overspent by $32,667, or 163 percent. The budget was in turn increased by about 45 percent this year, to $28,924.

The budget for snow removal materials went from $0 in 2007-08 and 2008-09 to $50,500 this year. This was probably due to the gradual depletion of a running inventory of sand or salt supplies, but the Beacon Falls Public Works Director could not be reached for confirmation or comment.

In short, all three towns overspent last year trying to clean up the mess wrought by frequent winter storms. Naugatuck saw no budgetary increase for 2009-10 under former Republican Mayor Mike Bronko’s leadership. Prospect saw a 6.6 percent overall increase in the snow removal budget, and the overtime budget in Beacon Falls was increased by 45 percent in light of overspending last year.