City of Waukesha, county are quickly using up their salt supplies during busy winter season

Todd Ponath
A Waukesha County plow recently made its way onto Highway 16 from Highway P in Okauchee while salting the road ahead of expected snow showers. In December 2013, the county used 9,700 tons of salt, its fourth highest total in December in the last 10 years.
Published on: 1/22/2014

Fred Abadi and his staff at the Department of Public Works haven't had many slow days this winter.

"It's been very, very busy, as you can imagine," said Abadi, the department's director.

This, of course, is a result of the area's frequent snowstorms over the last couple of months.

"We definitely had a very severe December, and January hasn't gotten any better," Abadi said. "Hopefully, February will be quiet."

Abadi said the city budgets for about 10,000 tons of salt for the winter. But Abadi said that through last week, the city has already used 8,500 tons of salt on city roadways this winter.

With much of the winter remaining, Abadi said the city has ordered another 1,500 tons of salt and has 2,500 tons in reserves.

He expects the city to tap into both accounts.

"We usually wait until toward the end of February to see how things are going," Abadi said. "Since we don't have much (salt) left we're pretty certain that we'll use that 1,500 soon, and there's a good chance we'll use the reserves."

Increasing its usage

Abadi said that with a light winter last year, the city had about 500 tons of leftover salt to use for the end of 2013.

The city spends $54.27 per ton, so if it uses around 10,000 tons, that equals close to $542,000 for the year.

It's rare for the city to use so much salt so early in the season, Abadi said.

For the entire year, in 2008, the city used 7,730 tons of salt, followed by 4,920 in 2009, 8,031 in 2010, 6,037 in 2011 and 10,200 in 2012.

According to the adopted DPW budget, the city spent $390,676 on sand salt in its snow-and-ice removal section in 2013 and increased its line item for sand salt in 2014 to $450,000, a 50-percent change. In 2012, the city spent $353,861.

Abadi said bidding for road salt through the state's Department of Transportation takes place in the summer, and the salt is purchased in September. Predicting how much the city will use for the end of each year and at the beginning of the following year always proves to be a challenge.

"We never know," Abadi said about the totals. "I wish I could predict."

County's total also rises

The same could be said for Waukesha County.

Supervisor David Swan, chairman of the Public Works Committee, told Waukesha County's Executive Committee on Monday that the county used 9,700 tons of salt in December 2013, the fourth highest December total in the last 10 years.

This comes after the county used only a combined 6,122 tons in December 2011 (2,212) and 2012 (3,910). The Decembers of 2007 and 2008 saw the highest totals of salt usage over the last 10 years.

Last month's total pushed the 2013 mark to 27,606 tons, up from the past four years by an average of 13,000 tons. There were 20 storms (where salt trucks were needed) in December 2013, compared to just two in December 2012.

Like the city, the county also pays $54.27 per ton on salt.

Swan said there are 6,475 tons of county salt remaining in its storage.

However, Chairman Paul Decker said the county could be worse off had it not started combining beet juice with its salt mix, which, along with reducing corrosion, melts to low temperatures and reduces the amount of material needed for application.

"Other counties are in more trouble," Decker said.

Two budget years

As Abadi noted, the winter season stretches into two budget years.

The city asked for salt money for December 2013 back in 2012 when that budget process was taking place. And it requested funds for this January months ago. So the amount of salt the city uses this month has an effect on what it has left not only for next month but also for December 2014.

"Winter is two different calendar years," Abadi said. "So since we need it for next November and December there's a pretty good chance that we'll purchase that 2,500 tons in reserves. So that's why it's hard to put the dollar value on it since some of it is paid out in the 2013 budget and some in the 2014 budget."

"One year ago we had a drought and the salt that we bought we kept it and didn't use much of it," Abadi said. "It helped with the following year."

OT hours add up

The time of day the snow falls affects how much the city pays its DPW employees. With many of the snowstorms occurring at night, on the weekends or during holidays, Abadi said overtime recently has been "significant."

"All of these storms have been after regular hours," Abadi said.

With snow on Christmas and New Year's Day, city employees were paid double the normal salary and during nights are paid time and a half.

"We have had so many night operations," Abadi said. "When everyone's sleeping, we're salting and plowing."

Abadi said he doesn't know what the city will spend on overtime until "some time later." But he believed the city budgeted between $85,000 and $90,000 for overtime.