Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"It's beginning to look a lot like... a deficit."

Have you noticed that the Boston area has been receiving a lot of snow this winter?

We're not meteorologists, but it's only January and so far we seem to be getting dumped on with plenty of snow. In fact, there's a major nor'easter being forecast for the region again tomorrow, the second major snowstorm in just a few weeks. Yuck.

We hearty New Englanders know all too well the headaches associated with snowfall. We're used to it. But, there's a major headache that is often overlooked until later in spring.

It costs a lot of money for the state and for cities and towns to remove all the snow we get from the public roadways. Budgeting for snow and ice removal in public accounting is tricky business. Sometimes, government officials try to trim back snow and ice reserves in lean fiscal years, betting on temperate conditions as a way to divert cash to other programs when money is tight. Sometimes the bet pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

The trick is that, one way or another, the snow has to be plowed and plow drivers need to get paid. When and if snow and ice reserves are depleted, it's usually up to the state to make up the difference by way of a springtime supplemental appropriation.

We find it curious that the Legislature passed a $330 million supplemental budget in its last informal session of 2010. And, we find it curious that, while there was apparently plenty of money sitting around to cover additional legislative expenses in the supplemental budget, there was nothing we can see which was dedicated to snow and ice costs. How much money will be left at the end of the fiscal year if we need it?

This is serious business, because most cities and towns find themselves in a condition of depleted cash reserves, tight budgets and diminished local aid. Plow drivers also could use business generated by the snow, and they shouldn't have to wait to get paid. Altogether, this is a recipe for problems if Mother Nature delivers a big unanticipated bill for snow and ice costs this winter.

One thing is for certain – with a $1.5 billion budget deficit looming at the state level for Fiscal Year 2012, don't expect much in the way of relief from Beacon Hill.

This is definitely an area to watch over the next few months.

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