Snow isn’t free — at least not at City Hall.

Public works crews will gear up Sunday to plow a few inches of the white stuff expected to accumulate across the Twin Cities. But each inch to fall in Minneapolis will come with a price tag of about $202,000. So including the built-in cost of being prepared, clearing a 5-inch snowfall could ultimately cost about $1 million.

That is an average based on a Star Tribune analysis of four years of snow and ice removal costs. In St. Paul, which has fewer road miles than Minneapolis and does not plow its alleys, the city paid an average of about $137,000 an inch for removal between 2010 and 2013.

Fluctuating snow totals cause annual expenses to vary wildly, making it one of the most unpredictable components of both city budgets. Minneapolis’ costs ranged from $7.3 million to $12.3 million in those years, while St. Paul’s swayed from $5 million to $7.9 million.

“We’re never told to stop plowing,” said Mike Kennedy, with Minneapolis Public Works. “We’re going to keep plowing. And then we’ll figure out how to pay for it.”

Experts cautioned that measuring the per-inch cost of removal doesn’t tell the full story, since expenses vary by type of storm, patterns of snowfall and number of miles plowed.

St. Paul City Engineer John Maczko said they spend more responding to a series of smaller storms than two larger ones, for example. And Kennedy noted that ice is extremely expensive to remove, but rain does not contribute to annual snowfall figured into the official tallies at the airport.

“A few years ago, we didn’t have a snowstorm, we had a 1-inch ice event. That about killed us,” Maczko said of the costs to buy salt and chip ice.

Costs rise with worse weather because of the need to retain on-call employees, pay overtime, purchase salt, cover more equipment maintenance and send contractors into the alleys (in Minneapolis). Kennedy said particularly large accumulations also spur the costly exercise of hauling away snow, rather than just plowing it, to widen streets for public safety vehicles.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, which tracks costs by season rather than calendar year, has seen expenses range from $62 million in 2012 to $136 million last winter.

The agency had to dip into reserves to cover the spike, which can take a toll on the budget for summer maintenance work, state Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle told a crowd of business leaders Friday. “Most elements of transportation are long term; you’re able to program it prudently over the course of a number of years,” Zelle said in an interview. “But in our climate, snow and ice is the one big variable.”

It reportedly costs about $1 million to plow an inch of snow in New York City and about $250,000 in Omaha, according to news reports from those cities.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have different methods for tallying their snow and ice removal costs, but Maczko’s department attempted to generate a reasonable comparison to Minneapolis’ estimates following a Star Tribune request.

The Minneapolis data included labor, material and equipment costs for snow and ice removal on streets, alleys, bridges, parkways, bike lanes and sidewalks — as well as some snow emergency expenses.

Both cities incurred more expenses than usual in 2013, the last year for which data was available.

A very rare 18.4-inch accumulation that April helped push the total snowfall to 69 inches, the most since 1996, according to Minneapolis records.

Different cities, services

So why does Minneapolis appear to pay more for snow and ice removal? Kennedy noted there are a number of variables that impact the comparison, including different weather between the cities, responses to snow events, procedures for handling snow emergencies and accounting practices. But Minneapolis also has more pavement than St. Paul and plows about 400 miles of alleyways that St. Paul does not.

Kennedy said about $1.4 million of the city’s $12.3 million expenses in 2013 could be attributed to alleys alone — which the city contracts out. The city otherwise plows about 17 percent more miles of road lanes than its easterly neighbor. Adjusting for those differences leaves the city paying just $1.1 million more than St. Paul in 2013 by Kennedy’s calculation, rather than $4.4 million.

“It’s really very very difficult to do a real solid financial match and have it be meaningful,” Kennedy said. “Because there’s all these differences.”

St. Paul residents must hire private contractors to clear their alleyways. But Maczko said those residents might be disappointed if the city stepped in to do the job.

“We tell the council we’re not necessarily opposed to getting into it, but once we get into it, there’s only one level of service we can provide,” Maczko said. “And if people are used to getting their snow shoveled out from their garage doors … we’re not going to do that.”

During a snow emergency, Minneapolis’ snow and ice control team grows to a size of about 70 employees. Some of them work year-round in the city’s street department, others are drafted from elsewhere in public works and a handful are seasonal employees who receive some pay to remain on-call.

The city set aside extra money in its 2015 budget to cover clearing snow from sidewalk corners. If costs outpace the budget for snow and ice removal in a particular year — a common occurrence — Kennedy said they are typically reconciled with the city’s unspent general fund balance at the end of the year. There is also a contingency fund to handle larger spikes.

Minneapolis City Council Budget Chairman John Quincy said he doesn’t worry about exceeding the budgeted amount.

“It’s based on need and service levels. So we just want to make sure the resources are there to do what we need to do,” Quincy said. “And if we need additional resources to make up that gap, we’re going to do that.”

Minneapolis Public Works Committee Chairman Kevin Reich said rather than seeking cost comparisons, constituents are more typically calling with requests for more plowing or to compare the city’s service to small suburbs.

“In this town, you gotta move the snow,” Reich said.


Twitter: @StribRoper