Mild winter thaws Cape’s budget worries

By Tara Jayakar, Cape Cod Times

This past winter’s lack of snowfall has been seen as a windfall by Cape officials who have snow removal money left over in their town budgets. But they say budgetary rules may keep them from using the money until next year.

“Public finance is a pain in the neck,” said Brewster Public Works Superintendent Robert Bersin, whose department has a $25,000 surplus that can’t be used elsewhere. “It’s earmarked for the snow and ice budget.”

Snow Removal

Here’s what Cape towns spent on snow removal this year versus budgeted amounts.

TOWN BUDGETED ACTUAL

Barnstable $600,000 $501,138

Bourne $92,900 $101,911

Brewster $120,000 $95,000

Chatham $71,000 $57,548

Dennis $132,637 $79,000

Eastham $47,828 $43,828

Falmouth $96,750 $243,824

Harwich $135,000 $87,224

Mashpee $116,000 $78,893

Orleans $88,281 $35,414

Provincetown $167,000 $50,000

Sandwich $250,000 $122,850

Truro $25,000 $18,435

Wellfleet $69,000 $49,660

Yarmouth $136,600 $84,327

Some state and local officials had eyed the leftover money as a way to ease budget deficits or to pay for long-delayed projects. Some, for example, have suggested using state snow removal money to bail out the MBTA, which is proposing rate hikes.

But according to Cape municipal officials, state law requires any extra money to go back into a town’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s usually a year before that money can be used for anything else,” said Sandwich Town Manager George “Bud” Dunham, whose town has $127,160 left over in its snow and ice removal budget. “It all gets thrown into the kitty at the end of the year.”

However, there are some budgetary tricks that can be performed before June 30 — the end of the fiscal year — that allow officials to use the money sooner rather than later.

Dunham said Sandwich’s leftover money could be used to replace road equipment related to snow and ice removal, saving money that would have to come out of the capital budget.

A town’s board of selectmen can also vote to move money from one line item to another. Eastham Public Works Superintendent Neil Andres said his department was able to move extra money earmarked for salaries related to plowing to the department’s snow removal equipment and supplies account that was over budget. Eastham still came in $4,000 under budget.

Budgets underfunded

Despite the different ways to use the surplus, some Cape towns have no extra money to play with because they purposely under budgeted the projected cost of snow removal for this season.

The commonwealth allows each town to carry a deficit for the snow budget because there’s no way of predicting how much snow a town will get. So many towns guess low and fill in the amounts in the next budget cycle.

Paul Morris, director of public works in Truro, the Cape’s smallest town, said that because going over budget is so common, the annual snow and ice budget is very small.

“You can overspend, so we keep the budget low,” said Morris, whose town spent $18,435.43 out of its allocated $25,000.

Supplies needed

Other Cape municipalities were not so lucky.

According to Michelle Freeman, Bourne’s assistant coordinator for finance and contracts, the town budgeted $92,900 and spent $101,911, putting it $9,000 over budget for the fiscal year.

“It’s a very rare year that we don’t go over snow budget,” said Freeman. “Most of that went towards purchasing of the salt, which we usually purchase at the beginning of the year.”

Falmouth ended up $147,000 over budget because of the cost of supplies, sanding and rising gasoline prices.

“We have to keep salt on hand,” town accountant Mary Ellen Alwardt said.

In Provincetown, Director of Public Works David Guertin said that half of this year’s spending went toward materials such as sand, equipment and chemicals. Those supplies will now carry over into the next year.

“The snow and ice budget is one of the few budgets the Department of Revenue allows the town to overspend or underspend subject to the public safety need,” Guertin said.

Catherine Laurent, Mashpee’s director of public works, said unpredictability is part of the job description.

“Obviously living in New England — and across the country — you really have no idea what winter you’re going to get,” Laurent said. “This year was a perfect example.”

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