Heavy snows stretching cities' removal budgets


Snowflakes are lovely as they float through the air, but they can be budget-busters on the ground.

Lakeview got so much in January that they are running out of places to put it and money to move it.

"We've got intersections that are full, sidewalks that are stacked high," said city manager Ray Simms. The town's removal budget is gone, meaning it will cut back on services such as clearing residents' driveways.

It's a common problem in Oregon this winter, compounded by higher prices for diesel fuel and for magnesium chloride, a commonly used deicing chemical.

Snow is piling up in Baker City, and Michele Owen, the public works director, said the city's $66,000 budget for plowing and buying salt and sand is nearly gone. And it's early.

"So we will be looking at contingency to cover the rest of it because it's starting to snow again," she said.

It's worse in Bend, where the city set aside $280,000 to remove snow on residential streets. But recent budget cuts due to fee permit declines from the housing slump dropped that to $152,000.

Parts of the city got more than 20 inches of snow in January and Bend may be at least $100,000 over budget, said Hardy Hanson, manager of the city streets division.

Bend still plans to call its contract snow removal companies when at least half a foot of snow falls at a time, possibly requiring a dip into the contingency fund.

"We will continue to operate at our standard level even though we may or may not get that money," Hanson said.

Road department directors try to predict before each winter about how much snow might fall and budget for it accordingly. If they underestimate by much, the difference comes out of basic road maintenance projects later.

"That's just less time toward pavement work, ditching, vegetation removal, that sort of thing," said Robert Brandes, public works director for Josephine County, whose annual emergency response budget is also tapped out.

Union County is planning for a possible end of the federal timber payment program this year and has cut back on road staff, losing two managers and three drivers this year.

Unless the program is extended, Union County's road budget will drop 30 percent, said Richard Comstock, public works director.

"What you are going to see with the counties that have reduced crew sizes, they are actually getting less hours of actual plowing on the road," said John Oshel, road program manager for the Association of Oregon Counties. "The result will be some of the roads that would have opened up the first day might now be plowed the second or third day."

Union County has spent an extra $80,000 in overtime, fuel, sand and other expenses so far this year.

Clackamas County's road department has been running its 10 plows and sanders continuously since Sunday. "We are nailing our overtime budget pretty hard though," said road foreman Mark Marchant.

Statewide, the Oregon Department of Transportation has spent about two-thirds of its $21 million winter road maintenance funds, but because of billing cycles, that may not include the last four to six weeks of heavy snow.

Some snow meters near Mount Hood are recording double the average annual snow pack.

If another major storm hits Lakeview, the city will work with Lake County to ask Gov. Ted Kulongoski to declare an emergency to release federal funds, said Simms.

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