While it cannot be said that in Massachusetts Mother Nature was timid in 2011 – think and ripping tornadoes – she sure exited the year with a whimper.
December was one of the warmest, driest months on record in the Boston area and all of the state, a situation highlighted by a brief glance back at last winter's barrage of snow.
By the day after Christmas in 2010, the had dumped nearly a foot of snow on Braintree, gobbling up $192,000 of the $250,000 the town had allotted for snow and ice removal and leaving layers of the white stuff that would not be fully gone for weeks. Shortly after that first major storm, another hit that cost Braintree an additional $95,000, just about wiping out the budget.
In all, the town went a little more than $1 million over its snow and ice budget last year, Chief of Staff and Operations Peter Morin said, spending about $1.3 million. Braintree paid for the costs with other funds, including from an account that had been dedicated to possible mid-year state reductions, instead of rolling over the debt as allowed by law.
This year's weather, by comparison, has so far laid a light load on the snow and ice budget, with the town as of mid-week having spent only a little more than $53,000 on truck repairs, overtime and bulk purchasing of salt and sand – resources that remain on hand for future storms.
"It's cyclical," Morin said. "Every seven or eight years you have a light one. We've been due for a lighter winter."
Braintree has budgeted $300,000 this fiscal year for snow and ice removal, an increase over last year that is part of the town's plan to bring the budget in line with a recent example of a low-cost year – approximately $375,000 was spent in 2007, Morin said.
Snow budgets are unique in that they are a fiscal area in which municipalities are allowed to regularly go beyond planned spending because of the uncertainty of weather, Morin said. That, combined with a state law that says a town may not budget less for snow than it did the year before, means that base budgets are typically set lower than expenses.
For example, if Braintree had budgeted $1.3 million this year based on last year's spending, in subsequent years it would have to allocate at least the same amount, regardless of the actual weather.
"It’s the only area of the budget where the Commonwealth allows you to overspend because snow and ice is unpredictable," Morin said. "We want to be at enough to cover a light winter and make sure we have the resources in other areas to draw upon if the winter is heavier."
If this winter turns out to be particularly uneventful, as it has so far, whatever Braintree does not spend on snow and ice can be moved into other local accounts by a vote of the .
"We're due for a break," Morin said. "Last year was an exceptional one. That was unprecedented. Weather tends to average itself out."
Still, Morin added, “I'm sure there will be some storms and my kids will be happier."