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Mild local winter leads to some great savings

Towns, villages and cities are greeting the first day of spring with plenty of salt in their highway barns and plenty of black in their snowplow budgets.

Unlike the budget-busting snow seasons other major metropolises have had, municipalities throughout the Buffalo Niagara region expect to have saved big bucks on overtime, fuel and equipment wear because of the mild winter season.

"We never had a two-three-four-five days of snow where everybody went crazy," said Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson. "For the most part, from my perspective, it's been kind of stress-free. In a normal winter, my stress level is about 200 percent."

Many municipalities still laid down a lot of salt this winter but stayed within budget and are coming well under budget in snow-related labor costs.

In Buffalo, where crews plow 1,600 lane-miles of streets, the savings were great.

"It looks like we'll be down in the range of about $700,000, and of a big chunk of that is snowplowing," said city Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak.

Earlier this winter, the city installed global positioning system devices in all vehicles that make up the snow fleet. While the high-tech tools are expected to improve efficiency and reduce costs in the long-term, Stepniak said it would be a stretch to credit the new devices for the savings that were witnessed this season.

"I think the GPS system helped us a little bit, but I have to believe Mother Nature is the biggest contributor [to our savings]," he said.

The city's salt reserves also approach 6,000 tons -- far more salt than what the city usually has at the end of the season.

"That will give us a nice jump next year," said Stepniak of the small mountains of salt that are stored in the Broadway Garage and at a site on Fuhrmann Boulevard.

Erie County's snow-busting brigade has used about 10,000 fewer tons of salt this season than in previous winters, said Public Works Commissioner Gerard J. Sentz. The county could save up to $250,000 this year, unless the weather is particularly harsh in November and December.

He and area highway superintendents said they don't yet know how much overtime may be saved, but most expect those costs to be much lower than past years where winter storms have wreaked havoc with the roadways.

Anderson, who is responsible for keeping more than 700 lane miles of roadway clear in Amherst, said there were rarely any days this year where snowfall became hard to manage.

"It might have snowed for 3 days in a row," he said, "but it came down a half-inch at a time."

Orchard Park Highway Superintendent Frederick J. Piasecki Jr. said that aside from direct, snow-related costs, municipalities are likely to save indirectly on equipment maintenance and repair expenses since snow plows weren't worked as hard this season.

"There was definitely a savings that was achieved because Mother Nature has been very good to us," Piasecki said.

Public Works Director David L. Kinney said Niagara Falls has about a third of its $310,000 annual budget for salt left. Last year, city officials spent the entire salt budget and had to add money to the account at the end of winter.

Many other superintendents said they saved some money in salt, but not a lot since even a light snowfall requires crews to sprinkle the streets.

Even so, Cheektowaga Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner pointed out that salting isn't nearly as costly as snowplowing when you factor in labor costs. Cheektowaga sends out eight trucks to salt, he said, but 25 trucks to plow 440 lane miles of town and county roadways.

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