Twenty inches of snow, school canceled, cars abandoned on unplowed streets — that is what the Chicago area looked like the first few days of February 2011.
What a difference two years makes.
Only 3.5 inches of snow have been recorded at O’Hare International Airport as of Jan. 31, far from the average of 36.7 inches. The record low snowfall for a season here is 9.8 inches, recorded in the winter of 1920-21.
Local governments prepare for winter to the extreme. The salt is piled, the plows are ready, the overtime is budgeted — all waiting for a major storm that hasn’t happened.
“They prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Mark Fowler, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference.
Now, with less than two months left in the season, municipalities are looking toward their budgets and all the savings the snow drought might bring.
Preparing for the worst includes budgeting hundreds of thousands of dollars of overtime pay to clean up after an overnight snowstorm, and stockpiling thousands of tons of salt to keep the streets clean.
“By not having to use money for road salt and overtime pay, it takes the pressure off other areas of the budget that aren’t going away, including pensions and capital projects,” Fowler said.
Naperville officials said the city will save at least $500,000 in overtime, contract and salt costs this season, and that figure could rise to $1 million if the rest of the winter is mild.
So far, Arlington Heights is looking at saving $350,000 or more.
Vernon Hills has spent only about 40 percent of its overtime budget.
“Our (salt) bins are essentially still full,” said David Brown, director of public works in Vernon Hills, “so we’ll be purchasing less salt.”
Palatine has used barely one-fifth of the salt it normally goes through in an average winter.
Palatine crews have salted the roads six times this season. They’ve used 1,200 tons of salt, while an average season uses 5,500 tons, said Matt Barry, director of public works.
Most suburbs will be able to buy less salt for next winter. Others buy salt through a state contract and must buy a minimum amount each year, no matter how much they actually need.
Fortunately, most suburbs have large snow domes to store the excess salt from year to year. In Palatine, public works officials are using an empty Menards store as a satellite storage facility.
“We still have another month to six weeks before we’re out of the woods, but we’re cautiously optimistic that there will be savings,” Barry said.
While public works overtime is not broken down into tasks, Arlington Heights Operations Director Mike Reynolds said he expects the department to save at least $150,000 on snow removal overtime costs this season. The department budgets $516,000 for overtime each fiscal year, he said.
Of the $425,000 budgeted for salt purchasing and usage, Arlington Heights is looking at saving at least $180,000, Reynolds said.
“We’re going to be pretty well ahead this year,” he said.
Naperville budgets hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire outside companies to help clear cul-de-sacs during snow events of more than two inches — which hasn’t happened yet this season at all, said Christine Schwartzhoff, operations director for the city’s public works department.
In most municipalities the money will go back into the general operating fund, and there’s no shortage of places to spend it — like pension costs, the emerald ash borer and infrastructure costs.
For the employees who may look forward to bringing in big money from snow plowing overtime, Reynolds said he tells them not to count on it.
“They shouldn’t depend on that as guaranteed income,” Reynolds said. “In the good years you have a lot and sometimes there’s none, so we give them the message not to rely on it too much.”
But just because we haven’t had a huge snowstorm yet doesn’t mean public works crews have nothing to do. Towns still salt the roads in ice storms or sleeting rain.
“It’s not so much the number of inches or the number of storms; it’s a question of the temperatures,” Reynolds said. “One giant 22-inch storm could cost you more than 15 smaller storms or the other way around depending on ice, rain and too many other factors.”
As February goes on, suburban officials will start looking toward their bottom lines, but also keep an eye on the forecast.
“Winter isn’t over yer. We do a good job when we need to, but of course we’d prefer not to have to deal with a major storm,” Reynolds said.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.