Heavy Snows Strain Local Budgets

By Beacon Staff

After a slow start to winter, the skies opened up shortly before Christmas and covered the Flathead with snow. The downpour didn’t let up until after New Year’s Day. While the sudden onslaught of heavy snowfalls presented difficulties for everybody, local government agencies in particular had their hands full with trying to keep the streets clean, or at least navigable.

The result is a substantial hit to their road and maintenance budgets. Dave Prunty, public works director for Flathead County, said his department has used up roughly 40 percent of its entire snow removal budget for the winter, which is still in its early stages. Prunty said there’s no cause for panic yet, but if the remainder of the winter – basically through March – sees above-average snowfall, then money could be a problem.

“When we get into these kinds of scenarios, the money flows, there’s no question about that,” Prunty said.

The big trucks used for plowing and sanding require fuel and occasional new parts, which are expensive. On top of that, employees at both the city and county levels were working overtime through the major snowstorms. For a while, you would have been hard-pressed to find any time in the day when there weren’t plows out.

“We’ve been extremely busy,” Prunty said. “The only day we’ve had off the past couple weeks was Christmas day.”

Neither of the public works directors in Kalispell and Whitefish foresees any financial difficulties, particularly if the weather levels off into a normal winter. The relative warm streak that hit the area right after the big snows helped. Kalispell has an advantage over some municipalities, Public Works Director Jim Hansz said, in that the city doesn’t pay for street maintenance directly out of the general fund.

A notable percentage of the funding comes from a mechanism that returns a portion of the state’s gas tax to the city to be used for maintenance. Other funds come from an assessment system. Smaller towns that pay for all of the maintenance directly out of the general fund, Hansz said, could find themselves in a less-desirable financial situation.

But Hansz did say the city had to rent trucks for plowing to keep up with the big storms. In these situations, the city pays for the truck and the driver. Officials also shuffled employees from different departments into the maintenance division to provide relief.

“We only rent them when we need them,” Hansz said.

Private snow removal companies have been pushed to their capacity as well. At LC Staffing, branch manager Heidi Robison said her agency went through its 30 or so snow removal employees and had to begin advertising for more. Robison said she hasn’t seen so many clients asking for snow removal service in her six years at the staffing agency.

Prunty said during the record-breaking winter of 1996-1997, before he was in his public works position, the county commission had to come up with more money to give to the roads department. The department used every penny of its snow removal budget. While he hopes it won’t come to that this year, Prunty did say that his department may have to look at cutting costs elsewhere in maintenance, perhaps in road paving or something similar in the summer.

The roads department, with eight employment positions left unfilled because of financial constraints, is no stranger to working within the confines of a tight budget.

“Your pot is only so big and at the end of the fiscal year you have to see how much money you have,” Prunty said.