© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - With the town looking at a $344,000 snow and ice deficit, Town Administrator Thomas Younger believes Stoneham should end the practice of severely underfunding its winter cleanup accounts.

During a Board of Selectmen meeting this week in Town Hall, the town administrator contended that local officials need to consider increasing its annual snow and ice fund to reflect modern day spending trends.

For the current fiscal year, Stoneham budgeted $255,000 in the DPW budget for snow removal, funding that was decimated last month as the region was blanketed by a wave of late-season Nor'easters. Assuming winter's bite has ended for the year, total snow removal and cleanup expenditures will amount to $603,000 for FY'18.

"If you look at other communities of a similar size, they basically budgeted what we expended," said Younger. "We're generally at the low end. So what we expended for the year for some very strange storms and timing is what for the most part within [the budgetary ranges of those other cities and towns]."

The current year deficit will at least be partially offset by transferring left-over money from other departmental budgets, but should that funding be insufficient, Stoneham citizens will likely be asked to make up for the shortfall by spending from free cash or reserves.

This year, Stoneham had some $3.4 million in surplus revenue certified by the state - the largest amount since 1980's - but Town Meeting is already being asked to appropriate almost all of that funding.

Based on a preliminary comparison between Stoneham and similar communities' snow and ice budgets, the town sets aside the lowest amount of money for sand, salt, and plowing operations. According to Younger, Winchester and Wilmington come closest to Stoneham with budgets of $400,000 and $453,000, respectively, while Andover budgets the most money at $1 million.

Reading this year appropriated $625,000 for the annual expense, while Wakefield in FY'18 set aside $755,000.

Historically, Stoneham has intentionally underfunded its snow and ice budget, because that spending category represents the only budgetary line-item that cities and towns can deficit spend from each year.

Town officials, with the backing of DPW Director Robert Grover, have agreed to roll-the-dice on the possibility of having a mild winter in order to leave funding within the annual operating budget for other priorities. By doing so, especially during tougher fiscal times, Stoneham's leaders have avoided the need to axe funding from other departmental operating budgets.

Those gambles have occasionally paid off, especially during 2012, when New England experienced one of the mildest winters in recent memory. However, since 2014, when town officials needed to offset a $400,000 spending gap, Town Meeting has been regularly asked to plug snow and ice account deficits.

The highest shortfall occurred in FY'16, following the worst winter in Massachusetts’s history in relation to total snowfall, which amounted to a record-setting 108-inch figure. At the time, DPW Director Robert Grover, explaining just $190,000 had been budgeted for snow and ice removal, pegged the deficit at around $600,000.

Since that time, town officials have been steering additional money towards the DPW's winter budget.

However, as Selectman Caroline Colarusso pointed out, if the town adds too much money into the fund, it won't be able to reduce that amount and retain the ability to deficit spend during severe winter seasons.

"I'd think you'd want to increase it incrementally to ensure you don't fund excessive amounts that can't be cut-back in a milder winter," she said.

In past years, when similar proposals were introduced to increase snow and ice appropriations, some opposing the approach have argued that in order to obtain the money, spending cuts would have to be made in another area of the budget.

However, since taking over as Stoneham's CEO, Younger has criticized budgetary practices that rely upon one-time funding sources to pay for re-occuring operational expenditures.

In 2015, Grover advised town officials to anticipate the area will receive around 50-inches of snow each winter, which at the time translated into an annual snow and ice budget of $350,000-to-$400,000.

When he cited that figure, he estimated it costs Stoneham roughly $5,500 for every hour DPW crews and private contractors are out plowing and sanding local roadways.

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