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Winter wreaks havoc with budgets
Jeff Wunschel, commissioner of the Green County Highway Department, gives some scale to the mound of salt used by plows in Green County, Thursday, March 14. (Times photo: Tom Holm)
MONROE - While meteorologists are busy measuring and reporting how many weather records the bitter cold and snow have broken during the winter of 2013-2014, local county highway and street departments are looking at broken budget records.

"Of the 59 days in January and February, there were only eight days we didn't spend over $3,000 a day (on road maintenance)," said Green County Highway Commissioner Jeff Wunschel.

Wunschel, along with Tom Jean, Lafayette County highway commissioner, and Tom Boll, Monroe Street Department supervisor, said the total amount of snow this past winter was not bad, but it fell in small, frequent batches.

Between mid-November and March 1, Lafayette County road crews were out all but one weekend, Jean said.

Residents in Green and Lafayette counties may be surprised to know the snow and ice are not the only culprits in wreaking havoc with this winter's road maintenance budgets.

"This season, what significantly came into play was the wind piling (snow) into snowbanks," Wunschel said.

Costs above average

In Green County, December and February monthly road maintenance expenditures for labor, trucks and materials stayed close to the 5-year average, Wunschel said. December cost $258,000, compared to $240,000 on average, and February was $177,000, compared to $208,000 average.

But January walloped the budget with $358,000, compared to the average $160,000. One ice storm on Jan. 10 cost the county almost $30,000. The highest previous January cost was $249,000 in 2009, according to Wunschel.

Equipment costs make up about 45 percent of the winter road maintenance expenses, labor adds about 16-17 percent and materials add another 15-20 percent, according to Wunschel.

County road crews are on call 24/7 during the winter seasons, and as many as 22 plows can be out on the state and county roads. Each of the 22 segments of county has about 22 to 25 miles of roads, which takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to plow. The larger plows, the V-plows, needs two operators, one for the front V-plow and an additional wing operator. Most of Green County's plows are from the mid-1960s, and still on the road.

Wunschel budgeted about $806,000 for the 2014 budget, and so far he used about $535,000. Green County budgets about $800,000 to $840,000 annually for road maintenance.

He said the county usually needs about $250,000 going into November for the start of the new winter season.

"And we're not through March yet," he said.

Jean estimated Lafayette County had to spend about 50 percent more than average on labor because of the frequent snow falls and because fuel costs are also higher. The county budgets a total of about $550,000 annually for all expenditures.

"The wind blowing and the cold added to the high cost," he added.

The City of Monroe spent a total of about $270,000 between November and early March, for just labor and materials. That's higher than average, Boll said, but he hasn't calculated the exact figures yet.

Labor costs of $157,000 for the season were up because of the persistent snow falls, Boll said.

Inside the city limits, wind wasn't the major issue the street department crews faced.

"It was the snow, and then warming up, and then turning to ice, and raining and then more snow," Boll said. "It was about getting the storm drains open before it rained again."

Salt needed

Almost half the city's cost, $113,200, is for salt and chips/salt mixture. The city has used about 400 to 500 tons more than in an average year, Boll said. An average year would use about 1,000 to 1,200 tons.

To replace the extra salt used this past season, the department will have to cut back on some maintenance projects this summer, Boll said. The city usually buys about 700 to 1,000 tons of salt each year.

Lafayette County used about 33 percent more salt than normal, according to Tom Jean.

"I used more salt this year than I have in my life," he said.

On average the county uses about 4,000 tons. This winter, Jean said, they laid down about 5,500 tons. Jean usually orders about 3,750 tons a year.

Wunschel said two major ice storms in Green County this winter used a major amount of salt for his county.

But Green County also adds brine to its salt, which Wunschel said cuts the amount of salt used significantly. It saved the county about 30 percent on its salt usage.

"It's definitely been a savings for us," he added.

Grande Cheese Company in Juda supplies the county with its disposable brine, a salt water bath solution used in the final stages of cheese making. Grande supplied 40,000 gallons last year, but even that wasn't enough to keep up with the county at its heaviest need times, so the county made another 20,000 gallons.

The brine is mixed with the road salt before sprinkling it on the road. Mixing the brine in with the salt helps to make the salt stick better to the road and start the melting process more quickly, Wunschel said. Brine is also good as a pre-deicer, especially on bridges, he said.

The county used about 646 tons of salt in January and 339 tons in February.

The county used about 3,000 of its 6,000 tons this year, but the state buys and keeps salt on hand for the county to use on state roads, and townships also buy salt from the county. The state has about 1,100 tons left of its 2,500 tons this year. The county has about 2,000 tons still on hand.