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So little snow, so much savings; Mother Nature's reluctance to shower the region with snow has brought smiles to municipalities that don't have to spend on plowing, road salt and overtime

Wonder how those grizzled plow drivers and mechanics are spending their days during this basically snow-free winter?

Drinking coffee and playing cards in the highway barn, perhaps?

Nope. Instead they're out repairing roads, cleaning ditches and fixing guardrails -- and saving thousands of dollars on salt, fuel and overtime costs.

"We're very fortunate, obviously, that this past November and December was extremely light to nil in terms of snow coming down," Orchard Park Highway Superintendent Fred Piasecki said. "Looking at the whole picture, January, February and March of 2011, we were out almost every day because we had a constant two to three inches."

Most municipal budgets run on the calendar year, which means the snow-clearing expenses come in the beginning of the year and the end. So the mild November and December really helped last year's budgets.

Municipalities are getting a great start on the 2012 budgets, too, and savings are significant:

*Erie County has saved $815,000 in snow and ice removal.

*Niagara Falls paid overtime just once this winter, and Lancaster town highway overtime is down nearly $70,000.

The warmer weather brings both good and bad news for Erie County.

The county has saved $120,000 in fuel, $150,000 in overtime and $555,000 in salt compared with this time last winter, said Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo.

But the county's contract for salt requires it to buy at least 38,000 tons this season. The county usually buys about 55,000 tons but has purchased 12,000 tons so far.

"If we don't use that, we have to store it someplace," Loffredo said.

If the county can't find a place for all of it, the supplier, American Rock Salt, will store it at a cost of $3 or $4 per ton until next winter, Loffredo said.

Still, he said, it's better not to plow.

Town highway superintendents would agree.

The number of times snowplows have been dispatched to clear the streets in the Town of Tonawanda can be counted on one hand -- once in December and four times this month.

Salters have been used more often, but Highway Superintendent William E. Swanson said he only recently tapped into his $292,000 annual salt budget.

"If we don't use it, that goes towards roads," he said.

"We just ordered $50,000 worth of salt," Swanson said. "That could last us quite some time."

The dearth of snow this season has given highway crews plenty of time to pursue other projects, including street work and tree trimming. Personnel costs have been pretty much under control, as well.

There was no overtime incurred in November and December, Swanson said.

Lancaster spent $65,000 to $70,000 more in Highway Department overtime last winter, Highway Superintendent Daniel J. Amatura said. Crews had plowed and salted about three times more.

The town has purchased 2,000 tons of salt but only has used about 1,200 tons, he said.

"You save money on overtime. You save money on wear and tear on the vehicles. You save money on fuel," Amatura said.

Because crews aren't needed to operate plows and salters, they can work on projects that normally wouldn't be done until spring, Amatura said.

These include cleaning drainage ditches, assessing which catch basins need to be rebuilt this year and replacing signs, he said.

Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson said he wouldn't be surprised if his department has saved at least a half-million dollars in salt and personnel costs.

From November through early this month, he said, the town has purchased only 5,500 tons of salt. That compares with 15,250 tons for the same period last season, he said, a savings of $390,000.

He added that the town recently rebuilt its salt barn and had to replenish its inventory. If not for that, he said, the savings would be even greater.

The mild winter has helped Niagara Falls as well.

"It's hard to put an exact figure on it, but we have saved," said Public Works Director David L. Kinney.

The city has been using extra salt from last year and only recently ordered 500 tons of salt, an amount it would normally order for one winter week.

North Collins Highway Superintendent David Winter said this is perfect weather to repair road shoulders, and his three-man crew has been out digging ditches and fixing roads.

But they miss their overtime. Savings for municipalities mean not as much money in the pockets of highway workers who are used to working overtime on holidays such as Christmas and New Year's.

With contributions from Charlie Specht, Janice L. Habuda, Sandra Tan and Stephen T. Watson.