Getting to Know your Highway Department

By David Sterio, Highway Superintendent, Town of Oswego

“Boy, it’s been an easy winter. We’re going to have a lot of extra money in the budget this year.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that during these last 2 months, we would have a lot of extra money. Yes, it’s somewhat true. It costs money to send out a crew to plow roads. There are labor costs, material, (fuel, sand and salt), and wear and tear on the trucks. The fewer times you send the crew out, the less you are paying for these items. But, how much are you saving, and are you losing any money at the same time? Let’s look at this one piece at time.

First, let’s examine the cost of labor. A lot of the plowing takes place during ‘off’ hours, outside the regular work day. Plows must get out early to clear the roads for school buses and residents who must commute to work. Of course, there is money in the budget to cover this added expense. If we plow fewer times than anticipated, then yes, we will come out ahead. But even though we may not have any major storms, or more than a few inches each time it snows, we still have to send them out. A snow covered road, 2 inches or 5 inches, still needs clearing. Also, even if we don’t get any snow for a period of time, we still have our employees on the payroll, 40 hour per week, every week. These men and women might not be plowing snow, but they are working each and every day.

Next, there are the consumable materials. Fuel savings are probably the greatest during a light winter. Sand is mined locally. The only ‘cost’ is in picking it up and hauling it back to the garage. We all have a stockpile for our own use. If we don’t use it this season, we keep it for next year. Salt is purchased collectively with the county, through the bid process. All Cities, Towns and Villages within the County estimate their seasonal requirements, and this total is put out to bid through the County Purchasing Dept. While a light winter will require less salt use, we are still required to purchase at least 60% of our estimate that season. It’s some savings, but not directly proportional to this season’s use. Additionally, even if we do not receive large amounts of snow, we do spend time on the roads applying sand and salt when we receive freezing rain.

Wear and tear on the trucks is diminished with less frequent use, but annual maintenance is still performed. (filter and fluid changes).

All of these things add up to some savings in our budget, “expenditures that will be less than anticipated.”

On the other hand, are there any losses associated with ‘fewer plow runs?’ For the Towns in Oswego County, the answer is yes. County roads in the town are plowed by our Town Highway Dept. This service is paid for by the County. The rate of reimbursement is calculated by using the hourly rate for the employees in the truck, (labor), and the hourly equipment rate as established by the NYS DOT. This is not a profit item for the town, but rather a reimbursement. By law, municipalities are not allowed to make a profit, but can be reimbursed for actual expenses.

How does this factor into the yearly budget? Well, first you can calculate the cost savings associated with not plowing the road. But, just as we budget for plowing expenses, our budget is also dependent on the revenue we receive from County reimbursement. If we are not plowing the roads, we are not receiving this income from the County. For every reimbursement dollar we do not receive that we had anticipated in our budget, it equals one dollar less that is actually left over. Remember, even though we may not be plowing on a daily basis, we are: a) still paying our employees their weekly wage, b) contracted to spend a certain amount of money to purchase salt, c) spending time, fuel, and incurring wear on tear on the trucks to haul sand.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of the challenges our local department faces.   If you have any questions, contact me anytime at the Highway Garage, and we can discuss how YOUR local Highway Department works for you.

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