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Long Island snow removal budgets strained by pileup of winter storms, record cold

Snow plow at work on CR 51 in

Snow plow at work on CR 51 in Eastport as strong winds blow today, Feb. 15, 2015. Credit: John Roca

Long Island municipalities, battling record cold, heavy snow and dangerous ice conditions, expect to outspend their snow removal budgets this winter by about $6 million, officials say.

Brookhaven Town, after increasing its snow removal budget by $1 million over last year, could end the year having spent double the $3.67 million it set aside for this winter. Huntington Town has spent nearly $2.4 million on snow removal this winter -- spending all of its $1.8 million budget as well as $500,000 from a contingency fund. And Babylon Town expects to be $408,000 over its budget. Out east, Southampton Town has spent about $365,000 more than it budgeted for snow removal.

The winter of 2015 was not for the faint of heart. A Jan. 26-27 blizzard dumped 24.9 inches at Long Island MacArthur Airport. At the airport, 56.2 inches of snow has fallen since Jan. 1, compared with 50.5 inches during the same period last year as of March 11, the National Weather Service said.

Adding to the misery was a February that set records for the coldest ever at the airport. The average temperature at the Ronkonkoma facility was 21.6 degrees in February, the coldest month recorded there since 1984, when the weather service began taking official measurements.

As towns across Long Island plow through their snow removal dollars, some municipalities say they did not exceed their budgets, while others say they went way over, although final figures are not yet compiled. The $6 million figure for how much municipalities expect to exceed their budgets is based on estimates from local officials.

And some budget watchers raised questions about how governments can plan future budgets if winters like this one happen again. Some town officials have spoken about "snow notes" -- a separate amount attached to a tax bill to pay for costs that exceed what is budgeted.


Cycle of melting, freezing

February's cold proved punishing for highway crews. Sand, salt and overtime costs piled up as snow melted, froze, then melted and froze again. On some nights, the cold brought stronger winds that swept snow above fences and back onto recently plowed roads. And many of the storms fell overnight or on weekends, resulting in hefty overtime bills.

"Plowing snow is a lot easier than dealing with ice and freezing rain," North Hempstead Highway Superintendent Thomas Tiernan said.

It's easy to deal with "10 to 15 inches of snow," he said. "You plow it, drop sand, and go home. This, unfortunately, you have to keep an eye on."

This winter's storms presented a "logistical challenge," Brookhaven's Deputy Highway Superintendent Steve Tricarico said. "We did what we had to do as a department to ensure the safety of our constituency."

The prolonged, persistent cold meant a "snow cover" remained on town and city roads, said Faye Barthold, a meteorologist at the weather service's Upton offices. Under warmer conditions, piles of snowfall would melt, but because cold temperatures lasted and snow continued to fall, the mounds stayed.

North Hempstead officials grew so concerned about piles of snow on corners and intersections that the town leased a snow melter for about $60,000. The school bus-sized machine, also used in Boston this year, melts snow with a hot tub-like tank, releasing liquid into a drain. Officials in North Hempstead estimate they outspent their snow removal budget by about $125,000.

The town, like others this winter, tapped a contingency fund to pay for its costs.

On the more rural East End, wide-open farm fields challenged cleanup efforts. The winds dragged snow from farm fields above snow fences that were not high enough. Thus, plows had to repeatedly revisit sections of roads to keep them open.

"Most of our roads are lower than the fields," Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson said, noting his town is under budget.


Crews worked after hours

Highway crews worked more in the evening and early morning hours, officials said.

"We worked longer and got less sleep," Southold Town Highway Superintendent Vincent Orlando said. Instead of regular hours, this year "we were done by 3 a.m. and back to work by 6."

The town spent $26,000 over its budget, Orlando said.

A secondary issue in the Town of Southampton were narrow residential roads that filled with snow, said Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor. Residents hired private contractors to plow out their driveways, and Gregor said some contractors, working mostly for summer residents, dumped snow onto roads, making the cleanup there more challenging.

"This is the Hamptons; people don't like to be inconvenienced," Gregor said.

The Town of East Hampton could be between $100,000 and $200,000 above budget, said Len Bernard, the town's budget officer. In addition to what was spent clearing public roads, town highway crews spent about $60,000 to clear private and unpaved roads so emergency vehicles could pass.

Officials in Oyster Bay and Hempstead towns, as well as the City of Long Beach, say they are currently below budget but acknowledge they have not finished tabulating costs. Hempstead has spent $2.17 million of its $2.8 million snow removal budget, though it has exceeded its $400,000 allowance for overtime costs related to snow removal by $70,000.

Smithtown has spent $477,000 more than the $1.06 million budgeted for materials, overtime and rentals, and Islip expects to exceed its $2.4 million budget, but officials did not provide specific costs.

Glen Cove has spent $250,000 on snow removal, exceeding the city's $200,000 budget, officials said.


Calls for better planning

Good-government advocates say towns should plan better on the assumption there are more brutal winters ahead.

"It would appear they're not budgeting enough," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State. "You get to the point where taxpayers would be open to the fact that we've had these problems" and would support bigger budgets over a scramble for funds at the end of the year, she said.

With that in mind, Smithtown and Brookhaven officials have discussed a "snow note," a payment that is assessed on tax bills to fund the difference between what is budgeted and what is spent.

Officials said they plan to take the summer to analyze spending trends. Budgets are based on a five-year average, signaling possible increased spending in 2016, officials said.

Preparing a snow removal budget always involves uncertainty, municipal officials say. A mild winter can follow a harsh one, notes Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto.

"That's the dilemma," he said. "You really don't know what kind of cards you're going to be dealt."

As winter fades, town officials say repaving budgets could be affected, too. Officials will check roads in the spring for damage from ice and snow. Across Long Island in the past week, pothole crews returned -- a sure sign the worst is behind us.

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