A wimpy winter
TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO A snowplow chugs down the Mansion House hill in Jim Thorpe, pushing air.
The lack of solid precipitation this winter has led to an accumulation of liquid assets for local towns.
Municipalities have spent far less for snow plowing and salt than they did last winter.
Last winter, Carbon County was hit by about 25 inches of snow. So far this year, it's only been about 3-5 inches. Schuylkill County was smothered under 45-50 inches of snow last winter, but only 20-25 inches so far this winter, according to Assistant Pennsylvania State Climatologist Kyle Imhoff.
According to Pennsylvania State Climatologist records, 1994 was the snowiest winter - 73.8 inches - for the Carbon, Monroe and Schuylkill county area since 1950. The least snowy so far was 2006, with only 9 inches.
Imhoff attributes this year's mild winter to the fact that a La Nina has persisted across the Pacific Ocean, and an index known as the North Atlantic Oscillation has been positive for the majority of the season.
"The combination of these two phenomena favor storm tracks from the south central United States, through the Great Plains to the west of Pennsylvania, resulting in a warmer, less snowy winter than normal," he said.
Money freed up
The scant snowfall in our region has freed money set aside for plowing and salt, allowing it to be used elsewhere.
"If there's something left over, we could use it somewhere else,' said Lehighton borough council president Grant Hunsicker.
Often, municipalities must hire outside help to plow and dispose of snow, in addition to paying their own workers overtime.
Lehighton budgeted $18,000 for contractors to plow snow last winter, but spent only $360. Council ratcheted down the budget this year to $15,000, but has spent nothing on outside contractors.
"This winter, the only snow removal we did was with our own trucks during the regular, eight-hour workday," Hunsicker said. "We did save on overtime. But we could still use quite a bit - we've already had bad weather in April."
Coaldale council president Susan Solt said leaders would likely use the savings to help pay outstanding bills. The borough spent $16,649.34 on snow removal and winter street treatment in 2011. This year, it has only spent $3,122.58, money that was spent on rock salt.
The borough is under contract with American Rock Salt Co., and must purchase an additional 133 tons of the stuff this year at a cost of $66.42 a ton. That will cost the borough an additional $8,833.36 this year. The borough is also having trouble finding a place to store the material.
In Palmerton, Borough Manager Rodger Danielson said that last winter, the borough spent $24,000 for salt, cinders, and contractors, and another $4,000 to $5,000 for overtime to get rid of snow and keep streets safe, not to mention wear and tear on equipment and the fuel it takes to run them.
This winter, the costs have been reduced to about $6,500. However, municipal budgeting is complex, and not having to pay as much as last winter doesn't necessarily mean there's that much more in the borough's pocket, Danielson cautioned.
While borough workers are kept busy during heavy snowfalls clearing streets, this warmer winter has allowed them to tend to other necessary tasks, such as changing out street lights, dredging the lagoon on the west end of town
"This year, we've really been fortunate," he said. "The mild winter allows us to do things we wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Workers can be shifted to other tasks."
Summit Hill, known for its higher-than-average snowfalls, set aside $14,000 for snow removal and salt in 2010, and overshot that by $1,500. Last winter, council allocated the same amount, but used only about $10,000. This winter, it again allocated $14,000, but used only $9,100.
Community leaders also said the warmer winter has allowed them to get a head start for next winter because of the leftover salt supplies and monetary savings.
The warmer winter may also give the state a surplus, although Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Chizmar says it's still too early to tell.
PennDOT has used about half of its budget for plowing, salt and other costs this winter, spending $112 million of its $216 million winter services budget.
"It's only March, and historically, some of our biggest storms have come in this month," Chizmar said.
Lower fuel bills
As it goes for communities, so it goes for the people. Warmer winter weather makes for lower fuel bills, Solt said.
"It gave us a respite from high heating costs," she said.
But while the lukewarm weather gave homeowners a break from shoveling snow and scattering rock salt, it wasn't necessarily good for business.
Tom Tirpak of Northeast Chemical & Supply, Lansford, said the weather has impacted his family's business immensely.
"I'm sitting on the most product I've ever sat on at end of season - about 90 tractor trailer loads of rock salt and ice melters. That's 85,000 bags," he said. "I was really upset at the end of February, so I went down and counted it. It's bad, but I thought it would be worse. It wasn't a good winter, but what the heck, we can't control the weather."
Tirpak said the store can't order materials a bit at a time.
"We have to have enough on hand to have it ready when the people need it. It just so happened they didn't need it this year," he said.