Budgeting for a Snow Storm

By: Cassie Anderson Email
By: Cassie Anderson Email

When we see snow, we think of sledding and worry about getting to work. When City of Lincoln Street Operations Manager Scott Opfer sees snow, he sees a big bill from Mother Nature.

"If we don't do our job, the city shuts down," Opfer said.

There's a quarter of a million people in Lincoln. They wouldn't make it to their jobs. Couldn't get to the store. Imagine the amount of money lost in productivity and revenue each day snow covers the city. That's why the city has a budget of $3.4 million to clear it out.

Here's how it breaks down:

Phase one: Sand and salt trucks. Price tag? Between $9,000 and $16,000.

Phase two: Plowing main arterioles and bus routes, $250,000.

Phase three: Clearing residential streets and removing snow downtown, another $500,000.

That's each time the city has to do it.

"We figure we're going to have to do phase one, 10 times," Opfer said. "Phases two and three, we figure we're are going to a plowing operation of main streets, five times a year. Going into residential, it's two or three times a year. When we get those years were we get more, that's where we struggle financially."

The struggle happened two years ago. The city blew through their $3 million budget in the winter of 2009-2010. That's where the carry-over fund comes in. Luckily there was enough money left over from previous mild winters. The city dipped into the fund for $1.2 million to get the job done.

"What our goal is, every year, is to be as efficient as we can with the dollars that are budgeted, so hopefully, at the end of the year, we have a little left," said Opfer

What the city doesn't spend on snow removal this year, they save for an emergency. Opfer says the fund is for snow removal, but can be used for other projects, like when the mayor needed extra dollars to fill potholes.

But when a storm hits, Opfer's not worried about saving a buck. He wants to get the streets clear. He says it all comes down to a balancing act, money versus a storm.

"We try to be proactive. We're also trying to be smart with the money," Opfer said. "Recognizing we do have to use some money we didn't have to, because the snow didn't hit. There are times when we should have spent more money than we did. We should have put more salt down. We should have had more plows. But that's the balance we are trying to work towards."

Personnel makes up $1.4 million of the budget. The Street Maintenance Department lost six staff in 2007. Even with overtime pay, Opfer says filling the driver's seat can be a problem.

"Our supervisors have one of the more stressful jobs in the winter," Opfer said. "In a full plowing operation, we'll have three plows and a material spreader on a route. We have 19 routes. They've got to put people in those seats."

Other city employees go above and beyond to get the job done. Opfer says even off-duty police officers and firefighters come in to push snow.

Opfer says even with all that effort, sometimes it seems the work isn't good enough. People want Lincoln to match what other cities do.

"Place's like Chicago and Milwaukee, they experience a lot more snowfall, number one, and number two, they've made a commitment as a community to spend more money and throw more dollars at their snow removal operation," Opfer said.

That means more money and maybe more tax dollars

"Two years ago, going through the budget process, that question was asked specially at town hall type meeting," Opfer said. "Do you want more emphasis placed on snow removal? Naturally the answer to that question was yes. But, then costs were described and people were asked do you want to pay for it? People were like, no maybe we can just get by with what we are doing."

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