MADISON, Wis. (AP) - County highway departments have spent so much money dealing with snow and ice on state roads this year that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation next week will ask the Legislature to allot $27.3 million more to cover those costs.
Some county departments say there was nothing they could do to cut costs. The winter brought repeated storms with above-average snow to plow, below-average temperatures with ice to melt and other costs that couldn’t have been budgeted for. The state also had to buy more salt at a higher price. All that added up.
“I know the reason. It’s very simple. It just snowed, and snowed, and snowed,” said Ashland County Highway Commissioner Emmer Shields.
Shields‘ northern Wisconsin county has already spent more than its entire $350,000 budget for winter work by March 31. The county already has a $20,000 deficit, not counting costs for April snow. That leaves nothing for winter costs in October-December.
“The option is to cut back on summer work, but that’s not a good thing to think about either,” Shields said. “We could be dealing with safety issues in summer” if the request isn’t approved and costs are cut there.
Shields‘ county is small, but its problems echo throughout the state.
Wisconsin contracts with counties to help maintain state highways in addition to their own county roads. Invoices are still coming in from counties for work plowing and salting state roads since January, and more are on the way as county departments continue plowing spring snow.
DOT expects by the time all invoices are accounted for, it will go over its original budget for work such as plowing by about $16 million.
Other county highway officials say it’s not in the state’s best interest to deny the claim.
“The ramification of not receiving the costs is substantial,” said Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. “What you end up doing is taking money out of routine maintenance operations, that’s significantly impactful.”
Ignoring routine maintenance leads to more substantial road projects that would cost the state more in the long run, Fedderly said.
The other $11.3 million was spent on an additional 150,000 tons of salt purchased mid-winter. Cities throughout the Midwest had to conserve salt and find new vendors as ice covering most of Lake Michigan blocked passage for ships carrying ice. As a result, the state bought an additional 10,189 tons from a new vendor at a 360 percent markup.
The money would come from a transportation revenue surplus, according to an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The Transportation Department has received state or federal aid five times in the last decade, the analysis shows. The Legislature in 2008-09 also adjusted the budget to account for low funds.