This winter's lack of snow in the Twin Cities area has been a boon to tight plowing budgets.
The New Year's snow storm spurred a flurry of activity, but Minneapolis' director of transportation maintenance and repair Mike Kennedy says this winter looks very different from the last one.
"Last year we had so much snow that the streets really narrowed. Traffic got dangerous," he said. "We needed to widen the streets, reclaim the driving lanes and actually haul the snow away. That is a very expensive proposition."
In the 2010-2011 season, some of his crews worked more than a month without a day off clearing ice and snow from the streets.
Compounding the problem was the fact that much of last winter's snow fell on weekends and holidays, making it even more expensive to clear. Crews working around the clock put the city about $3 million over its $9 million annual budget by the beginning of last year. Kennedy says the mild finish to 2011 helped.
"We thought we were maybe going to be a half million dollars short or if we had an average December we'd be a million-and-a-half over budget, but as it turns out, this has been a real saving grace for us for the 2011 budget and so we think we'll be okay," he said.
Even with the savings at the end of last year though, Kennedy stresses that Minneapolis typically burns through much of its budget just being prepared for snow and ice. The city has to have all its equipment and supplies on hand whether it snows a lot or not.
Other metro cities are also enjoying the break from several years of heavy snow.
Bloomington public works maintenance superintendent Larry Tschida said his city budgets for about a dozen snow emergencies in a typical year. With much of the snow falling on weekends last winter, labor and fuel costs quickly stacked up and most of the city's budget was spent by last March.
This year, he says, Bloomington crews are tackling the kinds of maintenance they couldn't get to last winter.
"This year we are ahead of the game, exactly, we've been out working on the tree trimming and working in the parks trimming trees, doing that type of thing because we have not had to do snow plowing," he said.
It's a similar picture in the northwest metro.
Jamie Verbrugge, city manager of Brooklyn Park, said that suburb also went through most of its snow plow budget in the beginning of last winter.
"So the fact that we didn't have much snow in November and December actually was really a blessing because it helped us to not go even more over budget," he said. The city had to transfer about $50,000 to its snow budget last year to buy more salt because the city ran out.
Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, said some cities are waiting longer to send plows or declare a snow emergency because of difficult budgets. Last year's heavy snows were particularly challenging.
"It almost seemed like there was a conspiracy last winter that somebody up there didn't like municipal budgets and the snow did come at the most inopportune time. It's worth noting of course too that the biggest part of the cost of providing snow plowing is in the labor cost, and regardless of whether it snows a lot or hardly at all, those labor costs are for the most part fixed," he said.
St. Paul doesn't have a final 2011 snow and ice tally yet. City Engineer John Maczko said he's hoping the light snow at the end of 2011 will mean savings. The city is likely to come out ahead at least on snow removal — actually picking up and hauling snow away. The city did that a lot in 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Not so this winter.
"Mother Nature has done a great job melting snow for us," he said. But he isn't ready to relax.
"I always tell people I get nervous because I'm a firm believer in the law of averages and I'm hoping that this is an averaging out for what Mother Nature did to us last year and not a delay for the season and now we are going to get everything for the season in March and April," he said.
So far, weather forecasts are calling for even more unseasonably mild weather.