Mother Nature piles it on, busting municipal budgets

Haverford Township Manager Larry Gentile, sick of this weather, is "ready to move south."

His snow-removal budget has already gone south.

On Jan. 1, the Delaware County municipality budgeted $150,000 this year for plowing, salt and overtime.

Today? Spent. Kaput.

"We are grossly, grossly over budget," said Gentile, who expects to be knee-deep in red to the serial whiteouts this year.

Yes, the stuff of snow angels can play havoc with municipal finances. Especially this year, when many township and borough officials have memories of near-record drifts in December, have just dug out from more than two feet of snow on Saturday, and are bracing for another big hit starting tomorrow night.

"If we get another storm," Gentile said, "add another $75,000 to $100,000."

Municipalities throughout the region already are struggling with the ravages of recession - plummeting transfer-tax and earned income tax revenues amid rising costs.

Now Mother Nature is piling on. Literally.

In Philadelphia, the Dec. 19-20 snow cost the strapped city an extra $3.4 million. Saturday, standing outside City Hall in what would be come a 28.5-inch snowstorm, Mayor Nutter said he would worry about removing the snow first, and about addressing the expense later.

The cost, Nutter said, was "not a focus. We do what we need to do."

In Abington Township, the weekend's work finished off the remainder of the $85,000 public works overtime budget for 2010.

In Cherry Hill, where $400,000 was budgeted this fiscal year for salt, sand, labor and fuel, the pre-Christmas storm cost $171,000. A New Year's Eve snow took another $32,000.

Last weekend's snow was estimated to cost about $200,000, and the coming storm will likely "blow the allotment," Cherry Hill spokesman Dan Keashen said.

The situation in South Jersey seemed so uniformly dire that state lawmakers asked Gov. Christie to request emergency federal help.

"This storm has already slammed our residents with heavy snow," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester/Cumberland/Salem). "We don't want to see them get slammed again with a property tax increase when federal assistance may be available."

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities today began sending out forms to scores of mayors so they can document storm expenses for possible federal compensation.

Similar tallies are under way in Pennsylvania. But the total damages statewide for a single event must exceed $16 million before federal aid would be considered, said Maria Finn, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Whether last weekend's snow and tomorrow's storm are a single event might depend on whether they are considered part of the same storm system, Finn said.

Waiting today for the next barrage, Lower Merion Public Works Director Don Cannon said he'd just as soon tackle one big snowstorm as he would several involving ice or lesser amounts.

"With the big storms you salt, plow, then go out and plow again," Cannon said. "With these ice storms, you have to go back out and re-salt and re-salt.".

The smaller "nuisance storms," he added, "really add up," given the 250 to 260 miles of roads the township must plow.

The December storm cost Lower Merion about $170,000. Saturday's snow should be comparable, Cannon said. Salt is plentiful and locked in at $40 per ton this year, but snow storms always get into overtime pay. Last weekend, crews went out on Friday and didn't quit until the roads were passable.

"The wives send in beef stew, we get the Crock-Pots going down at the garage" in Penn Valley, Cannon said, "and we just kept working."

Cannon could surely sell some of that salt to Gary L. Dunlap, manager of West Caln Township, Chester County, where at least 26 inches of snow fell. West Caln has only 50 tons of salt left from the 400 tons ordered this season.

"I just ordered 125 more tons of salt - at $70 a ton," Dunlap said. The snow budget, he added, "is sort of blown" for the year.

"You don't have much choice," Dunlap said. "We'll have to shuffle some money around."

Ridley Township, Delaware County, where 30 inches fell, has used most of its $138,000 snow budget, said Blaize Caponi, assistant township manager, and "they just ordered another 300 tons of salt."

Some points farther northeast, where accumulations have been lighter this season, are faring better financially.

Bucks County's Doylestown Township - where 10.5 inches fell - has spent less than $63,000 of its $170,000 snow-removal budget. The township is spread out enough that it can let piles of plowed snow melt without incurring the added cost of hauling them away, Township Manager Stephanie Mason said.

It's a luxury not found in places such as Pottstown, where 62 miles of roads are packed tightly into its hilly, northwestern corner of Montgomery County.

"We're an urban setting, very stacked up," said Borough Manager Jason Bobst. "Where does the snow go? In the downtown, we're removing it with backhoes and putting it in township parking lots."

When it all melts, Bobst said - echoing a concern heard regionwide - "we hope our storm water system can handle it."


Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or

Contributing to this story were staff writers Jeff Gammage, Kathleen Brady Shea and Edward Colimore.