CHAMPAIGN — Not only is a mild December in Champaign-Urbana leaving roads relatively clear of snow and ice, but if the trend continues, it could mean big savings for both cities' budgets.
Tuesday's snow was minimal — the plows were out in Champaign for the second time this winter at 4 a.m., but only needed a few hours to clear the roads. This year's lack of large accumulations is the polar opposite of the unusually high snow fall totals from last year, when Champaign ran hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget making the streets passable.
Comparing one winter with another is not the best way to determine cost differences because each season is different. But the city of Urbana has, so far, spent tens of thousands of dollars less than it did last year plowing the streets, operations supervisor John Collins said.
Overall, the city is saving money on road salt, equipment costs and employee overtime, Collins said.
"I'm just glad we got the first one out of the way," Collins said.
On Tuesday, seven public works employees reported to work in Champaign at 4 a.m., operations manager Tom Schuh said. During a snowfall, the plows need someone to drive them, mechanics to maintain them and supervisors to direct them to where they need to be.
Plowing streets can be expensive, and city officials can't predict the weather. They estimate what they will need to pay by looking at historical averages.
Snow crews had been called in to work 12 times by Christmas last year. Tuesday morning's response was the second this season, and they've needed to clear only a fraction of the snowfall.
By February 2011, employees in Champaign had racked up nearly $250,000 in overtime pay — almost 2 1/2 times the amount planned. Plows dumped roughly $350,000 worth of road salt on the street — that was 80 percent over budget.
DANVILLE — Thanks to the mild winter so far, the city of Danville's streets department has spent less this year dealing with inclement weather than it had by late December last year.
"However, that can turn very quickly," said Public Works Director Doug Ahrens. "It would be premature for us to suggest there will be any overall seasonal savings."
Ahrens said January and February last year were busy months for the public works division as it dealt with a significant amount of snow and ice. And the winter of 2009-2010 was also one that taxed the department's snow removal and overtime budget and its supply of salt.
The last two winters, he said, they've had increases in overtime and have had to start mixing grit with the salt at an earlier stage to extend the city's salt supply.
So far this year, he said, the salt supply is in good shape.
"Knock on wood," Ahrens said.
City streets crews were out early for a couple hours Tuesday morning after the overnight snowfall but before traffic really got going. He said they spread some salt in spots that are known to be slick over bridges, for example.
Ahrens said it's not only the frequency of winter weather events that can be taxing on budgets and supplies but also the duration of the individual events. Any time you don't have to deploy equipment or personnel or spread salt, it's a savings, he said.
Ideally, he said, you want winter to consist of a few heavy snows that quickly melt. But Ahrens would also be happy with no more snow this winter.
"We've had our dusting (of snow), and now we're ready for spring," he said.
The totals ran over budget last winter because the snow piled higher than it would during a normal winter, which is what city officials look at in determining the money they'll need to clean up the roads. The budgeting method is responsible for why the cities are spending less money this year, too — snowfall totals are lower, and crews have spent less time in the plows than they expected.
"We're spending less money," Schuh said.
The budget relief comes at a welcome time for both cities. Last year, Champaign had to pull hundreds of thousands from a contingency fund designed to pay for unexpected costs. That money needs to be restored at some point, and any savings from this year can be rolled into next year's snow removal budget, Schuh said.
During a period where city officials are looking everywhere they can for extra dollars, it's helping so far. But then again, this is the Midwest, and it's only December.
"If you look at November and December, it's less," Collins said. "But January, February, March can always make up for it."