Shortage of snow equals surplus cash for Lowell-area towns

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

City and town officials have grown accustomed to exceeding their snow-removal budgets well before the groundhog peeks his head out to see his shadow.

But this mild winter has cash-strapped municipalities hoping there will be savings they can put to good use.

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years in four different communities, and I’ve never seen a surplus,” said Tom Moses, chief financial officer for Lowell, which has spent $722,370 so far out of $1.2 million budgeted for snow and ice costs.

Last year, the city spent $3.3 million and budgeted for $650,000.

Of course, winter isn’t over yet, and the 1997 April Fools’ Day storm, which left 33 inches of snow in some parts of the state, is still fresh in Moses’ mind.

“Anything can happen,” he said. “I just have my fingers crossed.”

Even if cities and towns are able to put savings back into their general fund, it would be far from a windfall, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Many communities started this fiscal year with large deficits from last winter in their snow-removal budgets, the only budget item allowed by state law to run a deficit.

“There’s some breathing room,” Beckwith said. “It’s great to have this kind of conversation as opposed to last year, when the white snowflakes were melting into red ink for many cities and towns.”

Dean Mazzarella, who has been the mayor of Leominster since 1994, can’t recall the last time the city went under budget for snow removal. Leominster has spent $486,000 so far this year from a budget of $800,000.

“There were a couple of milder years but nothing like this,” he said.

Mazzarella, who said Leominster is not running a deficit this year, thinks a good use for the leftover funds would be to repair damage caused by last October’s snowstorm.

“If we save money from what we would have put toward snow and ice, I will be proposing to the City Council that we put a plan together for tree planting and putting some money toward sidewalks,” Mazzarella said.

Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen said the town avoided running a deficit despite exceeding last year’s snow-removal budget by about $150,000 because it covered the gap with funds from other accounts. Town Meeting would decide the use of money saved this year, he said, adding that it would likely go toward one-time capital expenditures, such as converting an old warehouse the town recently acquired into the new Department of Public Works building.

“You don’t want to use one-time money for recurring costs,” he said. “It’s not a recurring revenue source.”

In Acton, Town Accountant Joe Tassone said $165,935 in the $506,585 budget has been used so far, compared with $628,371 spent last year for snow removal.

“If we don’t use the money, it will definitely help the town,” he said.

On a statewide level, Gov. Deval Patrick said on WTTK-FM on Thursday that any excess snow-and-ice removal funds may go toward limiting the MBTA service cuts that are being proposed to reduce a $161 million deficit.

“It’s one we’re thinking about,” Patrick said, according to the State House News Service. “It’s February. You know how New England is. We’ve had a good and calm and relatively snow-free winter so far. If the winter continues as it has been, there will be unspent snow and ice budget. That may be part of the one-year fix.”

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has spent $26.4 million out of its $40.9 million snow and ice budget so far, according to spokeswoman Sara Lavoie.

“We remain cautiously optimistic that a surplus will exist at the end of this season,” Lavoie said. “I’m terrified that when it does snow, it’s going to be, like, six feet because we’ve been so lucky.”

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