Heavy snowfalls weigh down road salt budgets

By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - As snow piles up, the cost of throwing salt and clearing roads steadily mounts for state and local governments. Many have already exceeded their snow removal budgets for the year and there's still plenty of winter left.

The city of Akron has spent $2.6 million, nearly triple its budget for snow removal. Cleveland has spent $2.8 million, nearing last winter's total expenditure of $3.8 million, and has received 58.2 inches of snowfall so far, beating its annual average of 56 inches.

New York City began the winter with 230,000 tons of salt, and has already used 195,000 tons, said Kathy Dawkins, Department of Sanitation spokeswoman. The city bought an additional 140,000 tons for the rest of the winter, she said.

It's great news for the salt industry, said Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va.

Most of the road salt comes from seven North American mines, including two in Ohio, that are working round-the-clock to keep the salt piled high.

"We seem to be on top of it at this point," Hanneman said Friday. "We have the expectation we're going to be able to meet all the demand."

He said the road salt demand for 2002 won't exceed the record 20 million tons used in 1996. But with the way 2003 has started, it could be a banner year.

Morton Salt spokesman Joseph Wojtonik said demand is high in the East Coast and New England states, as well as Pennsylvania and Ohio. It's below average in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Fairport Harbor in northeast Ohio is just a snowball's throw away from Morton Salt's mine under Lake Erie, but that hasn't prevented the village from going over budget on road salt.

"Normally, what we do is figure out what we used last year, which would be about 350 tons. We are well over that already and there really isn't any money there," village administrator Verne Horton said.

The village has spent more than $15,000 on 475 tons of salt at a cost of $32.50 a ton -- $4 a ton cheaper than last winter.

"You've got to do it," Horton said. "We've probably had twice our normal snowfall."

The expense will force the village to cut back in other places, such as road repairs.

"We're kind of like senior citizens. We're on a fixed income," he said.

Ohio has spent $40.4 million in salt, wages and other snow removal costs this winter, exceeding its average expense of $32 million, said Joel Hunt, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Other states are buried in road clearing costs as well.

The State Highway Administration in Maryland has already spent $25.6 million, more than the $22 million it budgeted for snow removal. Road crews can't cut corners to save money, said Valerie Burnett Edgar of the administration.

"It's a lawsuit in the making," she said. "You really have to put the budget to one side and focus on keeping the roads safe."

New York Gov. George Pataki has asked that the Federal Emergency Management Agency help his state and local governments cover snow removal costs, including road salt and overtime for road crews.

FEMA has not yet made a decision on the request.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)