Mild Winter Means Less Snow Plowing, More Money for Cities

Several of the nation's typically-snowiest cities have largely been spared this winter, resulting in cost savings.
by | January 20, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

The often snow-covered streets spanning northern cities have largely been spared this winter, resulting in major cost savings for municipalities.

Road salt remains in storage silos. Snow plows don’t need to be fueled. And, most significantly, employee overtime expenses are down.

For some public works departments, a mild December meant not exceeding snow removal budgets for 2011. Others began deploying crews to work on maintenance projects and get a head start on the new year.

Minneapolis Public Works Director Steve Kotke estimates the city saved $2 million in snow removal costs so far this season. He previously anticipated spending more than the department’s annual snow budget after a harsh winter last year, but a mild December allowed him to keep costs down.

The city had received 11.3 inches of snow as of Tuesday. Nearly 54 inches had already been dumped on the city during the same period last winter, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

"It’s been strange, where we went from one extreme to the other,” Kotke said.

Many of the nation's snowiest cities have received less than half the snowfall at this stage during a normal winter.

The chart below lists cities with populations greater than 100,000 receiving the most total snow last winter. Inches of snow received are current through Tuesday, compared to the same period last winter:

City 10/2011 - 1/17/12 10/2010 - 1/17/11
Syracuse, N.Y. 25.4 92
South Bend, Ind. 29.8 71.6
Rochester, N.Y. 14.7 67.9
Minneapolis/St Paul, Minn. 11.3 53.9
Buffalo, N.Y. 13.8 52.2
Hartford, Conn. 14.6 45.4
Erie, Pa. 27.3 41.5
Worcester, Mass. 23.3 37.9
Green Bay, Wis. 11.1 34.3

Source: National Climatic Data Center

When Minneapolis issues a snow emergency, the public works department dispatches approximately 140 workers to treat and plow area roadways. Kotke said employee overtime expenses account for much of the costs, rising to even greater amounts when snow falls on weekends or holidays. Other significant expenses include road salt, fuel and equipment costs.

Last year, the city declared eight snow emergencies. Less snow so far this year has freed crews to repair storm water tunnels, haul collected debris to landfills and take on other projects.

Any leftover money allocated for snow removal could finance other department operations, or roll back into the city’s general fund, Kotke said.

A mild winter also leads to other long-term savings, such as reduced vehicle wear.

"From a fleet perspective, it's been helpful," Kotke said. “Plowing snow is hard on equipment.”

The sheer amount of snowfall isn’t the only driver of expenses. Costs begin to add up each day cities deploy their plows and other equipment, so the frequency of snowfall also matters.

In Green Bay, Wis., snow plow crews have been deployed only once this month. Ed Weisner, the city’s director of public works, said at least three plowing operations usually occur in January.

Instead, crews perform maintenance work around shops, pave potholes or clear streams of debris. Just a few weeks ago, street sweepers -- usually stored away by the end of November -- still cleared downtown city streets.

“It allows us to get a lot of little things done that we might not normally have the time to do,” Weisner said.

Much of the city’s road salt has sat dormant in storage facilities. City crews typically treats roads with about 9,000 tons of salt per season.

It’s possible, Weisner said, the city may end up with more salt than it has space to store. But it's difficult to predict when it will be needed.

"It's a nice change of pace, but we still have a lot of winter to go here,” Weisner said.