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Amelia Nielson-Stowell: Snow removal draining Utah funds

Equipment, labor costing cities, towns, state millions

SALT LAKE CITY — From salt, blades, gas and man-hours, snow removal is an expensive undertaking for Utah municipalities.

And it has an annual price tag that's tough to predict.

The state, counties, cities and towns allocate millions in taxpayer dollars each year to a costly, albeit necessary, service that is at the will of Mother Nature.

"On average, it's $1 million per storm," said Adan Carillo, Utah Department of Transportation spokesman. "The snowfall is something we always worry about."

UDOT has a $22 million annual budget for snow removal, one that is set by the Legislature and covers state-owned roads, including the interstates.

For cities and counties, the state allocates funding for public highways or streets designated as B and C roads based on the length and composition of the road.

"We need almost $2 million a year to maintain our roads at an average level," said Don Bruey, South Jordan's public works director. "Our B and C road funds are woefully short of that. So to make up for that, we have to take money out of the general fund, which is property tax dollars."

When plowing a road, the most costly thing could be a loose manhole cover. If a plow catches it while traveling at even 10 mph, it can break the plow blade, jerk the driver's arm, cause the truck to veer off the road and result in thousands of dollars in liability.

In South Jordan, blades for the city's 12 1-ton trucks cost $300; blades for the eight 10-wheelers cost $1,200 per truck. For an average year, four sets are needed per truck.

Salt is an even bigger cost. South Jordan pays $36.25 per ton and uses between 200 and 600 tons per storm. That's $7,250-$21,750 every time snow falls.

The salt all comes locally — the white salt from the Great Salt Lake and the red (which can melt snow under 20 degrees) from Redmond, Sevier County.

Provo's annual salt budget is $35,000. In Orem, that budget leaps to $75,000.

"I can't say we are hurting so far, but it doesn't help to have the snow storms chip away at the salt budget," said Scott Peppler, Provo's deputy public works director.

In the small Utah County town of Elk Ridge, $9,904 of its $10,000 snow removal budget is spent on salt.

This year, Murray increased its salt budget from $60,000 to $75,000, making up for the increase by cutting back on capital costs and not filling a void employee post.

Last year's winter season, though, was particularly draining on city budgets. Snow removal budgets in several Utah cities are finally back to normal after the 2008-09 heavy storm season left them scrambling for cash.

"That year, we basically overran our budget. We had so much snow," Carillo said.

UDOT was forced to make a plea to the Legislature and ask for more money to continue plowing the roads.

In Sandy, last winter caused a budget overrun of about $75,000. The extra funding was approved by the City Council from a contingency account. This year, the budget is back to its usual $115,000, said Sandy spokeswoman Trina Duerkson.

Despite ever-decreasing sales tax receipts and little help from state road accounts, virtually no Wasatch Front cities have cut budgets for salt and snowplows, citing the public safety importance of a safe street.

In cities from Herriman to Heber, funding allocations have been set according to the average amount of snowfall. So far this snow season, only a small portion of that money has been spent.

"We're hoping for a mild winter for snow removal," said West Jordan spokeswoman Kim Wells. "It's easier on the roads and easier on our budget."

Contributing: Rebecca Palmer, Marc Haddock, Rodger Hardy