Salt needs bite into Alle-Kiski Valley budgets

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 1:16 a.m.

Alle-Kiski municipalities aren't taking this winter with a grain of salt. It's more like thousands of tons.

So much in fact, that local towns have trouble keeping enough on hand to keep their streets clear.

If that wasn't enough, the damage it is starting to affect municipal budgets, too.

Faith Payne, Harrison's executive secretary, said the township expected to use 1,800 tons. “I know we are way over that,” she said.

And the winter isn't going away any time soon, according to weather forecasters. Colder weather and more snow is sweeping into the area again.

Payne said the price for salt under a cooperative buying contract bargained by Allegheny Valley North Council of Governments was $57.52 per ton. But as the need has pushed beyond what was budgeted, so has the price.

An escalator clause in the contract increased the cost for four recent truckloads by 25 percent.

Now, group members are paying $81.62 per ton — 42 percent more than the original cost.

Tom Benecki, executive director for AVNCOG, said that its 12 Alle-Kiski member municipalities buy their salt through an even bigger co-op that includes all eight councils of government in Allegheny County.

Benecki said the problem isn't that communities didn't buy enough salt — they can't get it delivered.

“Barges (delivering salt) have been held back by ice, so we weren't getting barges in as quickly as needed,” he said. “We reverted to trucks and rails, but if roads are bad, trucks take longer to get here.”

Benecki said a municipality can ensure adequate supplies by having enough storage space.

“If it's a bad winter and you only have a certain storage, you're going to go through that in the first month of winter,” he said. “Resupplying it during bad weather is tough.

“Harrison put a new storage facility in a couple of years ago. Even if shipments are delayed, they have enough to hold out.”

Benecki said salt has been coming to the area from Louisiana, New York state and Cleveland.

Valley towns ready

Lower Burrell Public Works Foreman Scott Johnson said the city just got a load of salt on Friday and will be in good shape for the weekend.

Knowing that salt has been in high demand throughout the region this winter, Johnson said city workers have been plowing more often in an attempt to use less salt.

He asked residents to have patience during the weekend storm: “These heavy snowfalls, we're not going to get through it as quickly as if we were just putting down salt. Plowing takes longer.”

Johnson said the department has gone through nearly 90 percent of the $140,000 budgeted for salt supplies in 2014. And that includes money needed for November and December.

Once this winter is over, Johnson said, he'll do his usual inspection of city roads and prioritize road maintenance and repair projects.

“Some of the projects that were on my radar may have to wait until 2015,” he said.

New Kensington City Clerk Dennis Scarpiniti said the city mixed sand with road salt to stretch its supply.

“We'll be ready for this snow,” Scarpiniti said of the weekend's expected storm. “But after that, I can't guarantee.”

Scarpiniti said city officials estimated they'd need 3,000 tons of salt for the 2013-14 winter season when they placed their order last spring.

Their salt contract allows them to order as little as 60 percent of the estimated amount, but caps them at 140 percent — 4,200 tons.

“We're pretty much at our limit,” Scarpiniti said.

He said they've spent more than $200,000 on salt this winter. Some of that cost came out of the 2013 budget, but Scarpiniti said they'll exceed the $150,000 budgeted for salt in 2014, with March, November and December still to come.

Saxonburg has used about 40 percent more than its typical 100-ton usage, said public works superintendent Tom Knights.

The borough has exceeded the 120 tons at the contracted rate of $62.50 per ton with Cargill, and another 22 tons were expected this week, he said.

“I haven't had a supplier tell me that there will be an extended delay,” he said. “We haven't had to look for another vendor.”

The borough treats 4.5 miles of roads, many of them small residential roads.

“They need to be treated just as well as a main road,” Knights said.

Alternative measures

Terry Van Dyke, roadmaster for South Buffalo Township, said his township ordered 150 tons to use only on bends, hills and other areas that typically get slick. He said they've used about 125 tons.

Van Dyke said he doesn't like to treat roads with salt because it deteriorates the asphalt. Instead, he uses a mix of sand and pea gravel, which costs between $16 and $18 a ton.

“A lot of times, we may have to do it twice,” Van Dyke said. “But even if you double the amount used, it's still cheaper.”

He said the township has between 5 and 7 tons of the mix on hand.

“I'm hoping that's going to finish us up for the year,” Van Dyke said. “The way Mother Nature has been treating us, it's been rough.”

Brackenridge has hard times

Denise Tocco, Brackenridge borough secretary, said her borough's salt bill is nearly 50 percent more than what it budgeted.

They expected to spend $20,000, but it's cost about $9,000 more, said Tocco. The normal 400 tons didn't come close this winter.

But road salt is a necessity, and getting enough has become a challenge.

“There were a couple times a couple weeks ago when we didn't have any salt,” Tocco said. “We had to close down a couple hills. We had just enough to keep Morgan Street open.”

She said that was done after midnight, when traffic is light. She said council has ordered a change in operations to conserve road salt.

“We are only now allowed to salt the hills, which, we do have a lot of hills,” Tocco said. “We don't know how much more we'll get.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer. Staff writers Tom Yerace, Jodi Weigand and Liz Hayes contributed to this report.

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