As cities around the state prepare for the inevitable start of winter snow plowing, they're feeling a budget pinch from a nationwide shortage of road salt.
State transportation officials plan to buy more than 275,000 tons of salt this year at prices that are 4.3 percent higher than last year. Cities and counties around the state will buy even more. Collectively, they've ordered over 375,000 tons for this winter — at even higher prices. On average they'll see an 8 percent price hike this year.
The reason salt will be more expensive is simple. A rough winter last year depleted salt stockpiles around the country. As a result, public works departments are ordering extra salt this year, fearing another brutal season.
Cargill, one of the country's largest producers of road salt, has been struggling to keep up with demand, company spokesman Mark Klein said.
"We've been working weekends at our three salt mines in the United States since this summer, which is somewhat unheard of," he said. "Usually the summer is the time you kick back a little. But we've already had the pedal to the metal."
There's so much demand, Klein said, that Cargill has had to limit the number salt contracts it bids on.
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"We've had to be somewhat selective of where we bid, and it's not just in Minnesota," he said. "It's in other states as well, because we have to make sure that if we bid on a contract we're going to have that salt available. We can't make a promise we can't keep."
Last year, Cargill put out bids to provide salt to nearly 350 Minnesota cities, counties and sites operated by the state Department of Transportation. This year, it bid on a little more than a third of those contracts. Morton, another major salt supplier, also put out far fewer bids.
With supplies and competition both down, prices are going up. But because of shipping costs, varying levels of competition and other factors, the price of salt varies widely from one city to the next. As a result, some places will experience cost increases of 20, even 30 percent.
St. Paul, for example, paid just over $60 a ton for salt during the last three years. This winter, its best bid was $80 dollars a ton. As Public Works Director Rich Lallier told the City Council recently, that adds up to real money.
"As a matter a fact, the increased price for the salt that we need to buy this year ends up totaling $657,000, is the anticipated rate," Lallier said.
Winona County in southeastern Minnesota also got socked with a big increase. The county used to get unusually low prices thanks to its Mississippi River port, but this year no one is selling salt for a bargain.
Still, County Engineer Dave Kramer said compared to other items in his highway department budget, salt is not a major cost driver.
"I don't want to be nonchalant about a price increase, but it's not something in the overall scheme of things that we had gotten real excited about or paid that much attention to," he said.
Besides, Kramer said, there's nothing he can do about it. In Minnesota, road salt isn't a luxury. It's a wintertime necessity.