CHIPPEWA FALLS — The lack of snow in November and December allowed area highway departments to see significant savings this winter.
Eau Claire County highway commissioner Jon Johnson said the county budgets $800,000 annually for snow removal, but the 2017 account finished with about $260,000 remaining.
“It’s extremely nice to have that surplus — it will help us fix roads in the summer,” Johnson said.
Johnson noted there have been recent bad winters, where the county has spent $1.2 million and $1.3 million, so it was good to see savings.
Thursday’s snowfall was only the second time Johnson has sent crews out for snow removal this winter.
“We have a two-inch snow (removal) policy we’re really sticking to,” Johnson explained. “That’s helping out as well.”
Chippewa Falls engineer Rick Rubenzer estimates the city finished “20 to 30 percent under budget” for snow removal in 2017, but he didn’t have exact numbers available Friday.
“The latter part of 2017 was really good for our equipment,” Rubenzer said. “Our salt budget was about 60 percent of normal.”
Rubenzer said the snowfall Thursday was his department’s first “full residential callout,” where all streets in the city were plowed. Rubenzer said the goal is to remove the snow piles through downtown on Monday.
The Chippewa County Highway Department also finished the year in the black, Highway Commissioner Brian Kelley said. While Kelley said he was able to cut into the deficit in the county’s snow removal fund, the amount saved hasn’t yet been finalized.
The highway officials budget their snowfall removal accounts from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, so it’s a little premature to ask them how their budget looks in 2018.
“We’re starting out 2018 on average,” Kelley said. “We’re not way ahead in 2018.”
Rubenzer said he has one major concern as the winter moves forward, and that’s due to the construction on one of the Highway 124 bridges across the Chippewa River, as the two northbound lanes remain closed while that structure is undergoing repairs. Rubenzer said it has been challenging for his staff to plow and remove the snow that has fallen on the southbound lanes because it is now divided, allowing for one lane in each direction for motorists.
While the snow Thursday was the first major event of the winter, Kelley said his snow-removal trucks have been out several times already. Kelley said he doesn’t wait to see if there is a half-inch or two inches of snow.
“We don’t have an accumulation policy,” Kelley said. “We just keep our eyes on the road and want to create good winter driving conditions.”
The weather this year has caused some challenges, even though there hasn’t been much snow.
“The cold didn’t help with the other snow events at the end of 2017,” he said.
The lower temperatures caused his staff to use more material and change up the salt mixture to make it work better on the roads.
The costs for using employees have been what Kelley expected.
“We’ve had some overtime,” Kelley said. “Some events have happened at night or over the weekend, and that leads to overtime.”
Chippewa County allocates about $1.25 million annually for winter road maintenance, but over the past five years, the county has averaged spending $1.6 million, leaving an anticipated $400,000 annual deficit.
The County Board approved a “wheel tax” three years ago because the county had a $1.2 million deficit in its winter road maintenance account.
The wheel tax, which has averaged generating $544,825 annually, will remain in effect this year and in 2019, and then is set to expire.
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