Winter Takes Toll On Municipalities' Budgets

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Winter Takes Toll On Municipalities' Budgets

Premiere Date: 
April 11, 2014

Curt Witynski of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities talks about the impact.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Fingers crossed, this year's long, hard winter is a thing of the past, but cities and towns across Wisconsin are still feeling its effects on their budgets. All the snowplowing and salting and broken water mains took a bite out of municipal coffers. A new survey released by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities show additional costs this year reaching to the millions of dollars. Curt Witynski is the assistant director of the league. Thanks for being here.

Curt Witynski:

Thank you, Frederica.

Frederica Freyberg:

So, I looked at your survey, and a couple of municipalities stood out. Milwaukee, for example, reported that they spent $2.5 million more this year than in usual winters.

Curt Witynski:

Right.

Frederica Freyberg:

And West Allis, obviously a much smaller city, reported that they spent $285,000 more, which was 168% increase. Now, of course cold and snow are usual in Wisconsin. What was it about this year in particular?

Curt Witynski:

Well, as much as we felt it emotionally, all of us, and got tired of enduring the winter, it was hard on city and village budgets and water utility budgets. It was just an unusually severe winter for public works-related issues.

Frederica Freyberg:

I understand that obviously there are the costs of salt, and snowplows, and all of that, but water main breaks were a particular problem. Is that right?

Curt Witynski:

Right.

Frederica Freyberg:

Are those super expensive?

Curt Witynski:

Right, well, you're talking, usually have to have a crew come out, open up the road, locate the water main, where it's broken. Sometimes that's more difficult than it sounds. There was an incident up in I think it was Abbotsford, Wisconsin, they couldn't locate the actual break for five or six days, so people had to go, you know, you could only use water if you boiled it. Some were without water. Part of the reason for these remarkable incidents across the state, a lot of water mains breaking, is the frost line was so much deeper than in previous winters. We have veteran public works directors telling us that they hadn't seen anything like this since the early '70s, where the frost line is four to five feet here in the southern, central part, and now it's seven feet up by Eagle River, and those places.

Frederica Freyberg:

So how does this break down? We always hear about stockpiles of salt and that kind of thing. But was it the cost of things like salt and fuel for plows, or was it overtime for people to put those things on the roads, or what?

Curt Witynski:

I think it was a combination more of the overtime, contending with the breaks. Another thing we faced in unusual numbers is thawing of lateral water mains. So the pipes that go from the water mains to people's houses were freezing in numbers we hadn't seen before. And you have to send out a crew to thaw those pipes, and that takes time. There are a couple of main methods that crews use to thaw water lateral, and one of them is steam, basically you're forcing steam or hot water. And that takes a lot longer. Another method is an electric-- you put an electric line and heat up the pipe that way. That's a little more risky, but that's a little faster. But anyway it takes at least two or three guys to go out or women to go out and thaw these pipes. That was another cost we hadn't anticipated.

Frederica Freyberg:

That was then. Now we're dealing with potholes?

Curt Witynski:

Now we're going to deal with potholes. As everyone will undoubtedly notice as the spring progresses and the thaw occurs, we'll have more uplift and breaking of streets and sidewalks and having more potholes than ever. We're used to having potholes, but this will be more than usual.

Frederica Freyberg:

Even worse. And you're saying that all of this occurred at a time when budgets for municipalities are already lean.

Curt Witynski:

That's correct. So, since 2005 municipalities have been under a state-imposed limit on how much we can increase our annual levy property tax. So we've had property tax controls put on us. And to contend with that, communities have either relied on increases in other state aids, which hasn't been forthcoming, like shared revenue or transportation aids, or dipping into reserves. So communities have been doing that for a number of years, where that option's really not available anymore.

Frederica Freyberg:

So what are you looking for now?

Curt Witynski:

What we're trying to do right now is point this out to the state. The state is aware. Public Service Commission's been hearing from water utilities. The governor's office is aware. And we're trying to work with the state to have a declaration, a disaster declaration, almost like any other natural disaster, to see if we can obtain some federal dollars to help communities, and maybe some state dollars. There are some other federal programs we're looking into too.

Frederica Freyberg:

We'll follow that, to see if that comes through. Curt Witynski, thanks very much.

Curt Witynski:

Thank you. 


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