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Highway officials talk salt cost, urge towns to increase funding

It takes Highway Superintendent Ron Maggs about 1,500 tons of salt each winter to treat the roads in Eden, plus about twice that much sand.

This winter, the rock salt will cost about $57,000, up about 25 percent from last year, he said, plus a shipping surcharge.

"It's going to come to a head in the future," when supplies and money run short, he said.

Maggs was one of 18 highway department officials from Erie County who gathered in Hamburg on Tuesday to call for increased highway spending, as towns draw up their budgets for 2009.

Sharply higher salt prices are eating into highway budgets that are already strained by oil-related hikes in asphalt and fuel, officials said at the news conference.

"The seriousness of this situation is not being addressed by many town boards," Hamburg Highway Superintendent Jim Connolly said.

"I was a little disappointed in public officials using scare tactics in an attempt to squeeze more money out of taxpayers," Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters said.

Hamburg's Highway Department is already getting an 8 percent increase in next year's budget, he said. Given the economic downturn, expenses need to be prioritized carefully.

"Especially in this time, when the average person on the street has to tighten their belts," Walters said. "If you can't hold the line during a recession, when are you going to hold the line?"

Salt supplies are tight -- and prices high -- because of heavy snows in parts of the country last winter that depleted supplies, according to an industry group.

"One Iowa [road] engineer told me he's praying for a brown Christmas," said Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va.

U.S. suppliers sold 20.5 million tons of rock salt last year, a near record, according to the industry group. Now some quotes in the depleted Midwest have come in at more than $100 a ton, as highway departments try to avoid running out in the dead of winter.

"There's no shortage -- we haven't used any yet," Hanneman said. "We won't know if we have any salt shortage until January."

Locally, salt costs the towns about $38 a ton, plus a $2 shipping surcharge, officials said. Salt comes by truck from the American Rock Salt Co. mine in Livingston County. Western New York is fortunate that it is located close to major sources of supply, Hanneman said, keeping costs down.

Erie County, which plows and salts about 600 miles of road, has budgeted for a cost increase of about 20 percent, Public Works Commissioner Gerard Sentz said. The county goes through about 50,000 tons a year.

"I always put money off to the side for salt -- it's a huge part of our budget," he added.
e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com1

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