No freeze on snow-removal funds for Northern US cities

Do budget cutbacks in America's northern-tier cities mean its citizens will have to ski to work when the drifts set in this winter?

Not necessarily. Even cities with hiring freezes are managing to thaw funds for plowing equipment and drivers to keep the roads cleared.

The reason? Predictions of an especially cold winter have made adequate preparations for snow removal a No. 1 priority. And they've already been started.

Dave Taylor, a climatologist with the Weather Services Corporation in Bedford , Mass., reports that calls from utility companies, highway departments, and salt producers regarding snow forecasts began right after Labor Day.

Emergency-preparedness workers are planning communication strategies; and sanitation departments are refurbishing plow/spreaders, training new drivers, and ordering their salt supplies.

A spot survey of Northern cities found that while the fiscal chill has hit some budgets harder than others, all have had to find innovative ways to deal with the flaky problem.

New York City. ''We think we have gotten our act together in the last four or five years'' (when, at times, only 50 percent of the city's snow clearing fleet was working), says Mario Rampolla of the Office of Civil Preparedness. Today, better than 80 percent of New York City's trucks are working or are new. While his office doesn't start ''worrying'' about snow till Nov. 1, it is now coordinating the different city agencies, utility companies, and volunteer agencies that work under the Mayor's Emergency Management Plan.

While New York City doesn't have to stint on snow removal, the budget-minded city saves money by putting salt spreaders on garbage truck chassis - saving $18 ,000 over the cost of buying a new one.

Buffalo. ''We've been getting ready since winter ended,'' says Joseph Tomasulo, commissioner of streets and sanitation in Buffalo. ''With 7 1/2 months of winter, we never really stop.'' Snow meetings start July 1 in this city, which last year had 25 inches in 20 hours and averages 100 inches of snow a year.

''We're taking the spreader bodies off, repainting, greasing, getting the conveyors ready,'' says Mr. Tomasulo. He estimates Buffalo's salt order this year should be about 25,000 tons. One new plan is to coax people to shovel their walks more. ''We had a terrible problem with ice buildup last year,'' he adds.

Another plan is to call the plowers in earlier, and work 12-hour shifts. Money is tight, he says, ''but we'd rather pay them overtime than lose the city.''

Chicago. Snow is serious business in the Windy City. ''The whole thing with snow removal is communication with public and visibility of equipment on the street,'' says John Donovan, commissioner of streets and sanitation.

He says that city just bought 75 new plow/spreaders and activated a sophisticated weather radar system. That system helps the city get an early start - a key factor in snow removal, he says, ''If I save one hour of time with my equipment, I can save $100 an hour per truck.''

Boston. Even the Hub, one of the hardest hit by budget cuts, hopes to keep at least the main streets plowed. Having lost a third of its public-works force since 1980, Boston has to rely primarily on contracted private companies to plow as needed.

Joseph Casazza, the commissioner of public works, says, ''We will have to make a crucial differentiation between safety and convenience.'' Two of the belt-tightening measures Boston adopted last year were: using more sand, at $5- 10 a ton, and less salt, $20-30 ton, and putting part of the work force on 24 -hour, 7-day-a-week shifts to ensure prompt action.

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