Rising snowfall sinks town highway budgets on Martha’s Vineyard

Some Island towns have already spent the entire amount budgeted for this winter.

Lynn Christoffers

Town highway departments across Martha’s Vineyard, after struggling with record winter storms, are now working to cover the costs of snow removal. Several local towns depleted their entire snow-removal budget for the year dealing with the Jan. 26–28 storm.

State law treats snow-removal costs differently from any other line item in a town budget, allowing municipal governments to overspend the budgets without an appropriation approved by voters. Eventually, however, towns will have to pay the bills, either by transferring money from other departments or by making an additional appropriation. A town’s board of selectmen and its finance committee must approve additional money for snow removal.

Cleaning up the January blizzard in Oak Bluffs, which dumped 27 inches of snow, according to a National Weather Service observer, cost more than the $35,000 set aside in the town’s operating budget.

“We’ve spent our entire snow budget,” Richard Combra Jr., highway superintendent for Oak Bluffs, said. “We budget $15,000 for salt and sand; we spent all that — we budget $10,000 for for overtime; we’ve spent all of that — we budget $10,000 for private contractors; we spent that.”

Oak Bluffs has 10 plows of various sizes on the road during a storm, as well as two front-end loaders. In January, the town contracted for two more plow trucks, two more front-end loaders, and four Bobcat excavators to help the highway department staff.

Edgartown highway superintendent Stuart Fuller said the $55,100 appropriated for snow and ice removal ran out during the second big storm of the winter. He has logged more than 1,200 miles of plowing, salting, and sanding already this year, and many of his employees are also racking up many hours at the wheel of a plow truck.

“There are seven full-time employees, including myself, and everyone is on the road,” Mr. Fuller said. “We’ll survive; we’ve done it before.”

Financial flexibility

The flexibility allowed by state law gives towns a way to deal with the unpredictability of Island winters. Most towns budget a reasonable appropriation for snow and ice removal, and replenish the budget if the winter is severe.

“Most towns do that,” Mr. Combra said. “It wouldn’t be wise to overbudget every year; then we would have an artificially inflated budget. It’s so hard to predict. Unless we keep getting these blizzards, I don’t think we’re going to be too far in deficit.”

Tisbury has already depleted the $15,000 budgeted annually for snow removal. Treasurer Tim McLean said it would be impossible for towns to manage snow-removal costs if not for the state law that allows them to overspend.

“There’s no way,” Mr. McLean said. “You would either have to budget a huge number that you might never use, or budget a consistent number. You have to pay for it eventually.”

Aquinnah town manager Adam Wilson expects to spend all of the $10,800 budgeted for plowing and sanding this year, but after the first big winter storm, the town had spent only about $3,500 of that amount.

“We’re not terribly worried about it, because the state allows you to go over budget,” Mr. Wilson said.

West Tisbury budgeted $40,000 for snow removal this winter, according to its town report. Chilmark budgeted $7,000 for snow removal this year.

Money back

There may be a silver lining in the clouds that dropped all that snow. Island towns are likely to qualify for reimbursement from the federal government for a large portion of snow-removal costs. According to state and federal guidelines, any county that reaches or exceeds 90 percent of the previous snowfall record, and exceeds cost thresholds, is eligible for reimbursement.

Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) disaster recovery manager Scott MacLeod said it appears Dukes County, which encompasses the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard as well as Gosnold, qualifies on both counts.

“On a preliminary basis, it appears that we may have eight or nine counties that may qualify,” Mr. MacLeod said. “It would appear that Dukes County had a record snowfall. Based on numbers reported by both local communities on the Island as well as the department of transportation, it would appear we have far exceeded our threshold of $58,864.”

MEMA is working to gather information from Massachusetts towns about how much they spent on the January storm. Those costs can include salaries and overtime for town personnel, equipment costs, private contractors hired to assist in snow removal, the cost of salt and sand, and the cost of opening emergency shelters, in certain circumstances.

Federal and state officials hope to complete the process of validating and verifying snow-removal costs sometime in March. That will clear the way for Governor Charlie Baker to make a formal request to President Barack Obama, asking the president to declare a major disaster in the affected counties. Then local towns can begin the process of applying for federal funds, asking to be reimbursed for up to 75 percent of the expenses for snow removal.