Prediction part of the job in forecasting winter needs

Kathy Routliffe
kroutliffe@pioneerlocal.com | @pioneer_kathy
Aug. 4 4:15 p.m.

WINTER WONDERING

WHAT: budget planning

WHERE: Wilmette public works

MATERIALS: rock salt, cold patch

PROGNOSIS: it depends

Preparing an annual budget, as any public servant can tell you, means juggling competing needs and finite resources, and reviewing past spending patterns to predict future demands.

Wilmette public works director Donna Jacubowski has to add another factor: weather.

One of her department’s main missions is to keep roughly 100 miles of streets, 19 miles of alleys and 166 miles of sidewalks safe to traverse at all times. That’s hardest in winter when snowstorms, cold weather and sometimes wildly fluctuating temperatures can block streets, and leave them pockmarked with potholes.

She and her team accomplish the mission each year with the help of rock salt and cold patch — and a constant eye on the forecast. It’s no different when she prepares her annual budget, a process that went into full swing in July for 2015.

Looking at past weather patterns and trying for at least a little educated prognostication for the next year is part of public works budget making, especially when it comes to deciding how much of each crucial material to buy, she says.

“We look at a five- to 10-year history of what we’ve used, and we’re literally just doing that now,” she said July 23.

A look at the past half-decade of winter seasons — from November of one calendar year through April of the next — shows how much weather can affect the use of Jacubowski’s winter tools.

Starting in 2009-10 and running through this past 2013-14 winter season, rock salt and cold patch use spiked during the two seasons most afflicted with extreme winter in that period; 2010-11 and 2013-14.

In 2010-11, Wilmette ran through more than 3,103 tons of salt; in 2013-14 trucks spread even more, 3,121 tons, across the village. Storms marked both years. For instance, a Feb. 1, 2011, storm dropped more than 20 inches of snow on the village, and this year’s New Year’s snowstorm was only one of several storm events that did the same, starting in December and adding up to six weather events in a very short time.

Observers might be surprised the 2010-11 salt cost total of nearly $178,000 was higher than the $161,243 tallied this past season, but the per-ton cost of salt has dropped in the past five seasons. Three years ago, salt cost $57.35 per ton. This year, the base rate was $51.49 per ton though the village did have to make an emergency purchase of 22 tons for $76 per ton.

Village records show a similar pattern of cold patch use. Not all cold patch is used to correct the injuries winter inflicts on roads, since public works crews also use it when they fix water main breaks, for example. But use of it during the November-April winter seasons still reflects the same weather patterns that affect salt use.

Last winter hit public works coffers the hardest when the department had to pay nearly $16,600 to buy about 128.5 tons of cold patch. The wintry 2010-11 season, was the only season where Jacubowski’s teams put down more cold patch, slightly more than 133 tons. The price leap from 2010-11’s roughly $14,400 is because of a jump in the per-ton price, from $108 to the $129 Wilmette had to pay this past season.

Jacubowski pointed out it isn’t just snowstorms or cold weather that affects use. It’s how those things go together.

“In December and January, we can’t rely on a lot of sunlight, which means it takes more salt to melt away snow. Whereas in March, we’ll probably have more sunlight to help the salt do its job,” she said.

“We’re also looking at whether the temperature goes above freezing, which helps salt melt, or whether it stays cold.”

Winters cross calendar years, but in Wilmette, budgets don’t. So when a winter season comes to an end in March and April, Jacubowski’s eyes turn to her remaining stores of salt and cold patch. Her budget for that year has already been approved, “so the last thing you want to do is run short on salt. You don’t want to be saying, when March 1 comes around, ‘I have an empty dome.’

“I’d rather have a little more at the end [of the season]. If we have a mild year and full dome, I know I’ll have something to go into next winter with.”

But what happens when the weather does what we all know it can do — change, route more storms Wilmette’s way or keep the temperature below average and probably guarantee potholes when the snow finally melts? How does that affect a budget

Jacubowski said she does not worry when that happens, because she knows that village administrators and elected officials know what the score is.

“The board understands the necessity of what we need. They’re not going to say, ‘Oops, sorry, that’s all you’re gonna get,’ if I tell them we’ve run low on salt [because of storms]. They’re going to approve the purchase.”

Tags:

WINTER WONDERING

WHAT: budget planning

WHERE: Wilmette public works

MATERIALS: rock salt, cold patch

PROGNOSIS: it depends

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