NEW YORK — THE salt is on the roads. Blades are lowered on plows. Hardware stores are running short on shovels - even the ergonomically correct ones.
That's the winter snapshot from the northern half of the country now that the first major storm has dumped up to a foot of snow from Ohio to New York and from Buffalo to Boston.
The region is getting its first big test of snow-removal capacity - in an era of lean budgets. The latest storm, the result of a drift-causing nor'easter, comes at a time when many cities have become spoiled by a dearth of snow in four of the last five years.
So, instead of spending money on new plows or salt spreaders, those normally struggling to clear roads have been able to supplement budgets elsewhere. Any money channeled into snow removal, but not spent, usually goes back into a city's coffers as a surplus.
"It could be used for anything," says Mike Pagano, a fiscal expert at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But, he adds, most cities admit that nature is too hard to predict, and they save it for snow removal later.
For most northerners, last winter was more Florida than Alaska, especially compared with the winter of 1993-94. With mild temperatures and less snow, cities didn't put money into plows.
"Unfortunately, the habit is that street commissioners and city planners have the tendency to order based on the prior winter," says Dave Hank, a vice president at Minerva, Ohio-based American Road Machinery, Inc., which makes plows and salt spreaders. Instead, he says, cities that need to scrimp buy parts and hope to fix up old plows.
Buffalo, a city that never seems to have any shortage of snow, is down to 50 pieces of snow equipment compared to 84 ten years ago. When a blizzard buried the city earlier this month, it had to borrow a monster V-plow from Rochester.
After the light snowfall last year, Torrington, Conn., decided not to renew an insurance policy that guards against a big snow-removal bill. "One city council member called it a form of gambling with taxpayers' money," says Jim Fabiaschi of the Litchfield Insurance Group in Litchfield, Conn.
The concept of the insurance is new. Policies can be tailored to the number of storms or total amount of snow in a region. Logan International Airport in Boston recently bought one of the policies. It may turn out to be fortuitous.
With the latest deluge, Massachusetts is already poised to set a record for the most snowfall in December - more than two feet. The nastiest early winter start up to this point was the infamous "Portland storm" of 1898, when 22 inches fell over two days and a steam ship that ran from Boston to Portland, Maine, sunk along with 140 other vessels.
A big storm can cost a city a lot of money. In New York, six inches of snow results in a $3.5 million removal bill. The latest storm is expected to cost Massachusetts at least $2 million.
The state has stockpiled some 30,000 tons of salt and sand. A crew of 33,000 powers, sanders, and salters are working to clear roads. "This is a tough time of year for a major snow storm because of the holiday season," says Julie Vitek of the Massachusetts Highway Department.
Cities calculate snow-removal budgets based on an average of the previous winters. New York, which uses the past five seasons for its formula, has seen its spending decline because of the light snowfalls. This year the city plans to spend $13.5 million to plow and salt compared to $16 million two years ago. Massachusetts has earmarked $11.7 million - a decrease from last year.
But these outlays may get stretched. So far New York is salting and sanding at a pace ahead of the winter of 1993-94, a budget-busting year. "As soon as the first flake hits, we are out there salting," says Lucien Chalfen, a spokesman for the Department of Sanitation.
Cities, in fact, appear to be pouring more money into salt. According to the Salt Institute, a Washington trade group, buyers last year purchased 18.8 million tons of salt compared with a normal average of 10 million to 11 million tons. As a result of the extra purchases and light snow, many cities have stockpiled supplies.
Southern states, hit by more snowstorms than normal, also seem to be spending more money on snow removal than they have in the past. The Virginia Department of Transportation has budgeted $43.5 million for snow removal this winter. That's $3.2 million more than it used last winter.
*Staff writer Christina Nifong contributed to this report from Boston.