If last winter was a budget-buster for cities, this winter may be remembered as the one where trees got trimmed, potholes were filled in January and everyone started to catch up on jobs long left undone.
But with at least three months of winter left, city officials aren't counting on anything. "This is Minnesota," said Eden Prairie's Robert Ellis. "It will snow."
Here's how cities are coping with the brown winter so far.
After spending "hardly anything" on snow removal at the end of 2011 and coming in close to budget, crews are trimming trees and repairing equipment, said public works director Karl Keel. One challenge this winter has been maintaining ice quality on the city's 15 outdoor rinks. "Our guys take a lot of pride in providing good ice for people," he said. Rinks typically are flooded daily at around 7 a.m., but to beat mild daytime temperatures crews have been going out at 5 a.m. and earlier to give skaters fresh, smooth ice.
City crews have been diverted to tree trimming, replacing street lights and other odd jobs, but they're also flushing sanitary sewer pipes with pressurized hot water, "which is kind of unheard of in December and January," said Paul Oehme, public works director. It prevents clogging and allows workers to inspect for cracks or breaks. Oehme said the city went slightly over its snow removal budget last year, but compensated by reducing spending on other items.
The city spent $880,000 of $1 million budgeted for snow removal in 2011, said Ellis. Crews are trimming trees, repairing tanks where brine for roads is mixed -- they corrode -- and overhauling drainage systems that catch sand and salt from plows and trucks. The city also is doing a street sign inventory in anticipation of new federal requirements for sign reflectivity.
The May tornado that hit north Minneapolis also swept through Golden Valley, and public works director Jeannine Clancy said crews are still cleaning up. They're also installing storm water pipes, trimming trees and doing a street sign inventory, and they removed an old bridge and built two storm water ponds. The 2011 snow removal budget was about 3.5 percent over budget.
While crews went out 36 times in January through March to salt and plow roads, there were only nine call-outs in November and December and two so far this year, said Chris Sagsveen, road and bridge operations manager. Crews are keeping busy sealing road cracks with asphalt. Hennepin typically budgets about $3.7 million annually to keep roads clear, Sagsveen said. Costs are down in recent years, he said, because of new plows with wings that clear more of the roadway and pre-treating of roads before snow falls.
Despite overtime costs last winter that were about 50 percent higher than the previous winter, the city met its budget, said Ken Ashfeld, public works director. Now crews are cleaning out sediment-clogged storm water ponds. The ground is frozen and can support heavy equipment without too much damage to the landscape, he said. Crews also are trimming trees. "Every winter is different," he said. "This winter's not over yet."
Three crews were trimming trees last week, a departure from past years when that work usually ends in November, said operations manager Tom Struve. Crews have also shingled park buildings, hauled fill dirt to lots where houses were removed and done odd jobs, he said. "We're considerably ahead of the game as it relates to overtime this season -- so far," Struve said. Even if crews work less overtime this winter, "maybe this summer we'll get a wind storm or who knows what," he said. "These things have a way of balancing out."
Crews have an early start on patching potholes, said public works director Doran Cote, and are trimming trees, repairing equipment and replacing old street signs. Last winter, the city spent nearly all of its 2011 snow removal budget during the first few months, he said, but dryness at year's end prevented a budget overrun. Cote said it has been a reprieve for his workers. "It felt like we got hit every weekend and every holiday last winter," he said. "Personally, I find this winter very refreshing."
Tree trimming and removal is a priority in a city that expects to be one of the first suburbs to be hit by emerald ash borer, and crews are working now on the city's nearly 10,0000 boulevard trees, said public works director Mike Eastling. Richfield ended 2011 on budget for snow removal, largely because the city allows employees to take time off rather than money for overtime. "They know they need to be around for the snowy times ... but they like to take time off in the summer and during hunting season," he said. "It works out well for us."
Kevin Duchschere contributed to this story.