As Snow Piles Up at a Record Pace, Cleanup Sends City Budgets Adrift

In New England, the winter of '94 brings deficits and salt shortages

NEW England cities and towns are straining local budgets as they try to keep abreast of an increasing pileup of winter snow.

In the wake of Friday's storm, communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are struggling to cope with yet another mountain of white stuff.

And cities and towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are likewise trying to stay on top of the continuing snowfall and cold weather.

Meteorologists says this winter is already the seventh snowiest on record in the Boston area since data was first recorded on a continuous basis in 1871. And the abundance of snow has kept public-works crews busy plowing, salting, sanding, and scraping. As a result, many communities - which are already operating on strained local budgets - must dig deeper into their reserves to dig out of the snow.

In Massachusetts, many localities are barely getting by as a result of reduced state aid, and snow-removal costs are straining them even further.

According to Peter Ajemian, spokesman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, most of the Bay State's 40 cities are operating on a deficit or close to one for snow and ice accounts. In fact, the cost for snow removal for all 351 Bay State communities by winter's end could run up to $50 million, Mr. Ajemian says.

Bay State cities have requested an additional $20 million from the state to make up for their loss this winter. And Gov. William Weld (R) said Friday he will ask the state legislature for emergency municipal aid.

``It has been a devastating winter so far, and the impact has been enormous on snow budgets,'' Ajemian says. ``If there are a few more storms, the deficits are just going to grow.''

In Vermont, communities aren't having an easy time either. In Burlington, the state's largest city, the snow-removal policy meant that streets and sidewalks were cleared completely. Now the city has relaxed its policy, due to previous budget cuts. That means that side streets go unsalted, and fewer sidewalks will be plowed.

But the big budget-buster for Burlington has been water-main breaks. So far, the city has had 15 to 20 breaks, and another 45 to 50 breaks in water pipes that connect to households. With six feet of crusty snow to chisel through on city streets, it can take 16 to 20 hours to fix water-main leaks, says Scott Johnstone, Burlington's public-works director.

``On the water end, we've certainly already spent our appropriation for the winter ... and need to make cuts in other areas,'' Mr. Johnstone says.

In New Hampshire, Manchester's snow-removal budget has already been exhausted.

But city public-works director Frank Thomas is less concerned with snow than ice. His crews are still trying to remove ice buildups from roads, after a freezing rainstorm last month.

``That ice storm, quite frankly, is more of a [nuisance] to us than, say, a 24-inch snowstorm,'' Mr. Thomas says.

In Rhode Island, some communities have already spent more than twice what they had originally allocated for snow removal, reports Dan Beardsley, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

And in neighboring Connecticut, cities and towns are out of road salt. In fact, the state attorney general's office is launching an inquiry into whether rock-salt suppliers have been price-gouging Connecticut communities.

In some cases, he says, Connecticut communities were quoted double or more the regular prices they pay for salt.

``We were paying $33 a ton [for rock salt] in December, and we are now paying up to $85 ton. We had to buy our salt [from] as far away as Maine,'' said Vanessa Burns, public-works director in New Haven. Ms. Burns says New Haven's snow-removal budget, usually $250,000, has already been doubled.

Up north in Maine, some cities and towns are digging deeper into local coffers for snow removal while others are not. Donald Willard, Rockport's town manager, says communities allocate plenty of money for snow removal. Mainers, he says, are used to snow.

``The snow we are having now is not very significant,'' Mr. Willard says.

``I remember back in the 1960s when we had record-breaking snowfall. But this is business as usual. This is pretty easy to deal with,'' he adds.

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