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Winter wiping out budgets

| Thursday, March 6, 2003

The winter of 2002-03, already set to go in the record books as one of the snowiest and coldest ever, also is leaving its mark as one of the costliest for many communities in the Pittsburgh region.

Spending on overtime and salt supplies is double that of past years in many municipalities. The high price tag of snow removal has hit hard in communities already grappling with tight finances.

This winter has been especially costly because of the mounting number of snowy days, Cranberry Manager Jerry Andree said.

So far this year, Cranberry has spent about $320,000 on snow removal, $60,000 more than allocated in the winter maintenance budget, Andree said.

"You can't control Mother Nature," Andree said. "Every municipal manager looks at when a storm is coming and how they are going to pay for it."

The storm that hit over the Presidents Day weekend cost Cranberry $12,000 in overtime alone, Andree said.

"It was three days over the weekend and over the holiday," Andree said.

The constant barrage of bitter winter weather has taken the biggest bite out of municipal budgets.

"The light snow is the worst," Andree said. "That constant 2 or 3 inches are very expensive. You're always at it."

Cranberry typically rolls out 14 snow plows to clear the township's 95 linear miles of roads. Crews have used more than 8,000 tons of salt so far this winter, Andree said.

Walt Beighey, Cranberry manager of streets and property maintenance, said this winter has been one of the worst he's seen in his 14-year career.

"It's been a long, long winter," said Wayne Rumburg, meteorologist with the Pittsburgh office of the National Weather Service.

A total of 55 inches of snow fell in Pittsburgh from December through February. It was the third-highest snowfall for those months since records started being kept 130 years ago, Rumburg said.

Temperatures during those months were far below normal. The three-month time span was the 10th-coldest on record, Rumburg said.

"We've not had one single sunny, 50-degree day this winter," Rumburg said.

The ceaseless cold and snow is the result of a mix of frigid air out of Iceland and moisture from the tropical weather system El Nino, Rumburg said. The two systems converged over the Northeast, including southwestern Pennsylvania, Rumburg said.

"This started in October, and it didn't let up," Rumburg said. "Unfortunately, all the way into the middle of March is calling for below normal temperatures."

The prospect of more winter weather has municipal managers literally seeing red. Money from other projects, including road repairs, could be cut to offset the cost of snow removal. Many local officials said they are waiting until the end of winter to determine which projects, if any, will be affected.

The demand for salt supplies has been staggering. Hampton ordered 9,000 tons this winter, said Al Zarenko, township director of community services.

"We haven't had a winter like this in quite a while," Zarenko said. "Our guys have been working very, very hard and putting in a lot of time."

The total cost of extra salt and overtime is being tallied. The winter weather could result in the need for more road repairs this spring, Zarenko said.

"The potential is certainly there for more extensive road repairs," Zarenko said.

It is a similar story in Mt. Lebanon, where snow crews have been called into action 52 times so far this winter. That figure is more than double the 22 times they were called out during the same time frame last year.

"We're already over our overtime budget for 2003, and we still have to go through the rest of this winter and the fall of 2003," said Rudy Sukal, Mt. Lebanon public works superintendent.

Mt. Lebanon's salt consumption also has more than doubled over last year's mild winter. So far, Mt. Lebanon crews have put down more than 8,500 tons of salt on the municipality's 110 miles of roads. Last year, crews used about 3,000 tons.

Salt alone has cost Dormont $32,000 so far this year. Last year, the borough spent $26,000 on salt, including a stockpile for this winter, said John Marquart, borough manager.

This winter has been tough on municipal equipment, as well as crews, Crafton Manager Stephen Vincenti said. About $1,500 in repairs can be directly attributed to the Presidents Day storm, Vincenti said.

Crafton officials are looking for state money to offset some of the cost from that storm. Vincenti expects to find out next month if any money is forthcoming from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Without state help, Crafton officials could be forced to scale back in other areas, Vincenti said.

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