(Courtesy photo)

Streets aren’t the only things freezing these days. Town manager Don Turner froze the FY ’19 budget last Monday following overspending on salt and winter operations this season. 

“It started snowing in November,” Turner said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”

The town has spent about $35,000 over its $180,000 salt budget and seen increased labor hours and fuel expenses this season. Turner said he anticipates the full over expenditure to total around $80,000–once town highway winter maintenance expenses are factored in. 

Milton maintains 101 miles of paved roads and 13 miles of dirt roads.

Town crews and workers around the region have grappled to keep up with the cyclical snowfall, rain and subsequent freezing the state has experienced this winter. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) forecasts exceeding its winter maintenance budget by about $5 million, according to Todd Law of the VTRANS maintenance bureau. 

Turner’s decision to freeze town expenditures is a precaution to ensure spending remains within the voter-approved FY ’19 budget –which ends this July. 

“The effort is to pump the breaks a little bit on spending,” Turner said. “It’s just being responsible.”

The town will use no overtime or compensatory time other than what is essential until Turner feels the budget is in a better place. But Miltonians should not see an interruption to services, he said, adding first responders and police will still be on the job. 

Milton Police Department (MPD) will be down two full-time officers this spring after Officer Charles Brown leaves on early retirement this month and another officer departs for a temporary, stateside national guard deployment in May. One of MPD’s part-time officers also left the force last Monday. The decreased staff numbers could require an increase in overtime hours for the department. 

Milton Rescue will likely run out of budgeted funds after May, Turner said, adding that anticipated shortage was another reason to enact a budget freeze this month. 

Turner asked town departments to cut back on non-essentials by evaluating which planned expenditures can be held for the FY ’20 budget.

Holding off on tire purchases for town vehicles, printers and paper until the freeze is lifted may be good areas to examine, he said. 

“I’m a realist. I know, if you go out and get a flat tire, you have to replace the flat tire,” Turner said. “But if you can put off changing the oil until July then I’m going to ask you to do that.”

Turner noted it isn’t customary to freeze a budget at this time of  year, but said it was important to take early action because of the size of the expense. 

“I thought this margin was big enough that I didn’t want to take that chance,” he said. “We’re not talking $5,000 or $10,000 [over budget] we’re talking a big number.”

As of March 2, VTrans used about 180,000 tons of salt to treat roads across the state –around 50,000 tons more than its seasonal average, according to Law. An increase in the price of salt –this year up about 15 percent, or roughly, an additional $10 per ton exacerbated the increased demand for salt.  

VTrans budgeted about $18 million for winter maintenance operations and projects, spending about $5 million over that budget. The overage will require VTrans to cut spending in other areas of its $90 million maintenance and operations budget, according to Law. 

One area that could see cuts might be state-matches on upcoming road projects, he said, adding the agency would prefer not to take from its paving budget as the freeze and thaw cycle this winter has worn state roads. 

Back in Milton, Turner hopes to ease the freeze as early as next month. He will examine spending in the hopes of allowing departments to resume their budgeted expenses.

The general fund includes a $45,000 contingency line item that will be used to mitigate overspending due to this grueling winter. In the event of an extreme emergency, the town maintains some fund balance to cover expenses.

“At the end of the day the voters authorize the spending plan and we can’t exceed it,” Turner said. “We are confident that we’re going to spend within the budget the voters approved.”