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Snow and ice making a mess of budgets

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Catherine W. Idzerda
January 2, 2014

JANESVILLE—Things were going as well as could be expected until the freezing rain started.

That's the simplest way to sum up the snowplow budget situation for Janesville and Rock County. 

And to top every thing off, the year ended with another plow event: Additional snow fell between Tuesday and Wednesday evening. According to the National Weather Service, between 2.5 inches and 4.5 inches fell in Rock County from Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning.

“Up until about mid-December, it was looking like we would do really well for calendar year 13,” said Ben Coopman, Rock County Highway Commissioner. “But it all went down the chute with that freezing rain event.”

Municipal budgets run from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, but winter seasons straddle two calendar years, and that can make planning tricky.

Janesville, for example, received a “season's worth of snow in two and a half months” at the start of 2013, said John Whitcomb, operations director for Janesville public works.

In October, Whitcomb went to the city council to ask for a supplemental appropriation of about $300,000 to cover November and December.

“Then we had that major freezing rain event that lasted forever,” Whitcomb said.

For more than 24 hours, the roads were as slick as politicians.

“They had to get the chains out for the trucks,” Whitcomb said. “I can't remember the last time they had to do that.”

Plow drivers “white-knuckled it” through the storm, Whitcomb said. They'd prefer a foot of snow to a 24-hour ice storm.

Rock County lost a plow truck during the ice storm. A driver was taking a corner in a subdivision cul-de-sac when his plow began to slide very slowly to the side. When its wheels entered the ditch, the truck rolled over onto its side. The driver suffered minor injuries. The truck, a 1994 model, will have to be replaced. The cost for the truck, front and wing plows and spreader is estimated at $250,000.

Whitcomb had hoped to defer ordering salt until the new year, but when he looked at the forecast earlier this week, he didn't think he could wait.

At that time, forecasters were predicting up to 8 inches of snow starting Tuesday around noon and ending sometime Thursday night.

Coopman said he didn't know how much he would be over budget for 2013. Overtime and equipment costs still were being calculated for the last few storms. The county's plowing budget is about $1.9 million a year.

The county also has a reserve fund for plowing. During good years, when not all of the plowing budget is used, the leftover money is put into the fund. That money will be used to cover any additional costs in 2013.

The city budgeted $1.2 million in 2013 for seven full plow operations and 26 chemical-spreading operations, according to a story in the March 6 Janesville Gazette.

In 2012, the city's snow removal budget returned $243,509 to the general fund after spending about $1 million for plowing.



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