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Relatively mild winter warms wallets of taxpayers Area highway departments report being able to salt away savings

There's still time for some nasty weather, but the relatively mild winter so far has translated into savings for many area highway departments.

In general, road crews have made fewer trips and dumped less salt than most winters.

That's meant a savings of about $200,000, mostly in salt costs, for Erie County, according to Deputy Highways Commissioner Gerard J. Sentz.

In Buffalo, Streets Commissioner Joseph Giambra put the savings at about $160,000 for salt and another $60,000 for overtime.

"It's pretty unusual to be this much under budget," Giambra said. "It's the biggest surplus at this point in the year in my 12 years as commissioner."

Amherst's savings were also noteworthy, according to Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson; about $75,000 in salt and $123,000 in overtime.

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak estimated the town has saved about $90,000 in salt and plowing costs out of a $15 million budget.

Provided there are no future storms that place high demands on the department's resources, Gabryszak said he is hopeful that whatever savings are realized as a result of this year's milder than usual winter can be used to lower taxes.

"My first preference would be to put [the savings] back into the fund balance," said Gabryszak.

The good news for municipal budgets can be traced to three months of relative warmth and little snow.

December, January and February, sometimes referred to as meteorological winter, averaged 29.9 degrees, which is 4.4 de grees above normal. It was, in fact, the 10th warmest such period since record-keeping began at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in 1943.

Snowfall was 71.6 inches, about 9 inches below what we normally get for the period. Less snowfall also meant fewer days with snow on the ground, only 21 of the 66 days from Christmas through the end of February.

And there were very few big snowfalls -- at the airport, only one of 6 inches or better.

"There were no countywide big storms," Sentz said. "That's what would have hurt us."

Without those storms, Sentz said he was able to move county road crews around from north to central to south as conditions warranted.

"It allowed me to be flexible and put the trucks where we needed them," Sentz said.

January was incredibly mild, 10 degrees above average, and that's when most of the savings occurred.

"In January, we salted and plowed less during that month than we had to a year before," Amherst's Anderson said.

Anderson said the mild winter has allowed the department to start planning, and in some cases doing, road work that usually waits until spring or summer.

"Probably the biggest result is we're getting a head start on some drainage problems and a road project," Anderson said, mentioning a road project on Audubon Drive and a major drainage project on Schimwood Court and Montbleu Drive.

Although the Southtowns got more snow than most of the area, several municipalities said they still managed to save money on snow removal.

"It has been excellent for our budget, relative to our normal winters," said Hamburg Highway Superintendent James Connolly.

He estimated that his department has spent about a quarter to a third less on overtime than during the same period in previous years. But he does not anticipate any noticeable savings in the cost for road salt from November to early March.

"We've had consistent snow coming and going," Connolly said. "While it wasn't storms, a lot of the events we had were requiring a little scraping and salting, more than the standard snowstorms."

Includes reporting by News Staff Reporter Thomas J. Dolan.

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