It may have become a national phenomenon, but the polar vortex sure hit close to home here in Wisconsin.
They weren't always big hits either. Two inches of snow here, four inches there, followed by three days of frigid temperatures, followed by more snow. This became the norm the last few months. And, according to village officials, it definitely took its toll.
"It wouldn't have been so bad if it had just been one or two major snow events," said Germantown Director of Public Works Jay Olszewski. "But it was small repetitive hits over and over and over that ultimately wore us down."
In Germantown, "us" includes a fleet of 16 patrol trucks operated by 12 employees who run about a dozen street routes throughout the village.
Olszewski estimated it takes more than two hours to drive a plow route and an average of six to eight hours to fully clean up a plow route once the snow has stopped. He cited the freezing rain of Jan. 10 and 11 as among the worst conditions this winter, during which the village used a record 280 tons of salt.
And even in a case like this winter, where there were several smaller snow events back to back, the consequences tend to pile up.
"This winter was incredibly hard on us," said Germantown Village Manager David Schornack, "and it was even harder on our roads. So even though we went through so much salt and so much effort keeping the roads clean, the total cost is not going to be seen probably for quite a while because of what it has done to our roads."
In Menomonee Falls, Village Manager Mark Fitzgerald points to similar long-term ramifications as the bigger problem with a winter like this.
"This was an especially bad year for water main breaks because some of the laterals that are older were laid more shallow," he explained.
Regardless of the type involved, Menomonee Falls Director of Public Works Arlyn Johnson was sure to clarify the response is the same.
"It doesn't matter whether it is a storm with an inch of snow or six inches," he said. "It was the number of storms that really added up on us this year."
That was significant this year, Johnson said, when the approximate cost to respond to a single two-to-four-inch snowfall event ranges from $25,000 to $35,000. Of that, a large portion is accounted for in salt costs alone.
Initially the 2013 budget in Menomonee Falls called for $250,000 in salt, but last year the Village Board authorized an amendment that increased the total 2013 salt budget to $540,000. The actual cost of salt in 2013 ended up being about $580,000, according to Johnson.
No one wants to think about it, but both Olszewski and Fitzgerald agreed this is never a surprise. And, as a result, it's never too early to start planning ahead for next year.
"We budget to the mean, but we also have a contingency allocation that allows us to meet the needs of the community no matter what the winter throws at us," Fitzgerald said. "One of the main reasons why we budget like this is because winter extends through multiple fiscal years ... we want to start next snow season with a full allocation of salt supply in November."
The budget for salt in 2014 was $275,000, but the village has already spent approximately $214,000, so Johnson suggested something will likely be done again to account for the imminent shortfall.
In fact, Johnson said the intention is to recommend that the Village Board create a dedicated reserve fund for de-icing salt that could be used to cover budget shortfalls due to unusually severe winters such as 2013-2014.
"This dedicated reserve fund would also help to average out the variability in budgeting for winter weather response, as well as address the issue of a winter season occurring over two different budget cycles," he said.
What has been bad for village budgets has been good for some businesses, said Scott Bach, who owns Village Tire and Auto. The shop is one of a few in the area that specialize in front-end alignments, which Bach said were at a high in January.
BY THE NUMBERS
snow and ice operations in Germantown
snow and ice operations in Menomonee Falls
tons of salt used in Menomonee Falls
tons of salt used in Germantown
cost of salt per ton
average cost per event (including fuel, labor, salt)
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