High snowfall leads to budget shortfall

Snow removal could leave streets division as much as $300,000 in the hole

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This winter's heavy snowfall will likely lead to a budget shortfall for the city's streets division, officials say.

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"We are anticipating that we will be over our annual budget by maybe $200,000 to $300,000," Streets Superintendent Mike Scott said Tuesday.

This year's streets division budget is $3.8 million, which does not include money for maintenance and upkeep of plows, trucks and other vehicles, he said. The fiscal budget runs from July 1 to June 30 each year.

"We will have spent, by the end of the winter, probably $400,000 to half a million dollars just to get rid of the snow," Scott said.

One of the toughest problems is finding places to store the excess snow that's piling up across town. The city presently plows Forest Service roads near Skater's Cabin and Auke Village Recreation Area in exchange for storage of snow on Tongass National Forest land.

Removal costs keep going up with every inch that falls. City crews sometimes work from 12 to 18 hours a day to keep up, at a cost ranging between $2,500 and $5,000 an hour, depending on the number of employees working, Scott said.

"I would guess it could be up to $25,000 a day if we're running full out and trying to get it done," he said.

The city has contracted with local companies and may need to hire even more workers to clear the streets, Scott said.

Assembly member Merrill Sanford, a member of the public works committee, said the streets division has been returning money to the budget reserve each year for roughly the past decade because the city has seen less snow in recent years than Juneau has historically experienced.

"Now that we have a big year, we don't have the funds available to get all the work done, so we'll have to dip into the budget reserves," he said.

The money needed to cover the shortfall will come from local property and sales tax revenues, Sanford said. There is a chance that the money may cut into other programs this year.

"You might have to say that you might not buy something for the rest of the year so that we can do snow removal," Sanford said. "That is an option that we have to balance the budget."

The city also has been working on balancing snowplow and snow removal services around the community. The streets division tries to get all streets plowed in 24 to 30 hours, but people should remain patient, Scott said.

"We've been extremely busy and we are expending a lot of resources and money to get the snow removed as quickly as we can," he said. "We can't be everywhere at one time."

The city has been receiving complaints because of snow piles left in driveways, but Scott said leaving the berms was necessary and not intentional.

"Nobody is ever targeted on purpose. It's just a fact of living in a country where you can get up to 200 inches of snow annually," he said.

Meteorologist Tom Ainsworth of the National Weather Service office in Juneau said this winter's snowpack is stacking up as one to remember.

"This winter is currently up to fifth place for having the highest seasonal snowfall, with 159.4 inches at the airport," he said of the latest data Tuesday.

The heaviest annual snowfall in Juneau was recorded in 1964 -194.3 inches, Ainsworth said. The winter season typically runs from September through May.

The first week of March has been relentless, with 24.2 inches recorded as of Monday night. Juneau's highest recorded snowfall in March took place in 1948 when 52.8 inches fell.

The weather could get even trickier for snow removal experts in coming days, Ainsworth said.

"We're dealing with a real dicey situation of snow changing over to rain and possibly mixing with icing rain," he said.

The weather is expected to warm over the next few days before cooling back down to the low 30s and upper 20s later in the week, Ainsworth said.

A sudden increase in warm weather could lead to more problems, Scott said. The city is trying to remove as much snow as possible before it melts, which could potentially lead to flooding, he said.

"There's not much we can do except try to open up drains and get them working," he said. "If they clog up with snow, there is very little we can do until it melts off."

The city is also monitoring increased avalanche danger.

The new urban avalanche advisory system was last updated to "high" on Tuesday morning. The only higher level is "extreme."

Sanford said the city's emergency committee deals with all types of hazards including avalanches.

"It always is a concern," he said. "We know we have houses that are in avalanche areas."

Hopefully spring will come soon after a long winter, Scott said.

"We can all hope for a warm, dry spring," he said. "A slow thaw."

Elsewhere in Southeast, Hoonah has had six feet of snow since Thursday. Petersburg has recorded 42 inches. Rain was reported in Ketchikan.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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