And the winter bills keep piling up.
Even though spring "officially" began Wednesday, winter weather continued to assert itself this week, with snow falling overnight Monday -- and more in the forecast for early next week.
Cleanup costs for the two March storms, however, seem small compared to the onslaught of bills that piled up in the wake of the February blizzard.
The blizzard, which dumped about three feet of snow on the town, cost an estimated $662,261 for overtime, cleanup, materials and contractors.
As for the March 8 storm, the cleaup cost was about $53,000.
Overtime costs for the March 18 storm that saw a small public works crew called in Monday night, and the rest at 1 a.m. Tuesday, are still being calculated.
But it's another $53,000 -- and counting -- from an already-stressed municipal budget. There is some Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement to be had for the blizzard, but at this point the 75 percent reimbursement will cover only a 48-hour period of the February storm, which actually took crews several more days to clean up afterward.
"The problem is it was a 96-hour event," Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett said of the blizzard. He said the state is trying to get FEMA to expand the time period eligible for reimbursement, but at this point, no one knows if that will be successful.
During the February blizzard, which dumped at least three feet of snow on the town, the DPW spent $157,167 on overtime, $23,838 on materials and $245,025 to hire private plow contractors, for a total of $426,031. The Fire Department expenses break down to $21,846 for overtime and another $215 for materials. The overtime for police amounted to $10,000, while at the water pollution control plant overtime is estimated at $6,952 and $640 for materials.
The Board of Education also racked up $6,810 in overtime and another $189,766 for plow contractors.
Bartlett said the DPW had $125,000 budgeted for snow removal overtime. "It's pretty much gone now," he said, and while there should be some FEMA money coming back, he won't get be getting $125,000. Bartlett estimated that the snow removal account will "easily" end up being about $100,000 over budget.
The budget's overtime accounts are depleted because of a very active New England weather cycle during the current fiscal year that included a nor'easter while the town was still cleaning up from Superstorm Sandy. The bills for Sandy are still being calculated.
The Fire Department's overtime line item for incidents like the storm had $295,000 budgeted. But according to the Finance Department, so far $618,000 has been spent.
This time around, there really isn't a contingency account in the budget to absorb some of the unanticipated costs. During deliberations last May on the 2012-13 budget, the Representative Town Meeting voted to cut $850,000 from the contingency account, despite pleas from town officials. The RTM action left $238,517 in the account.
David Becker, R-1, the RTM majority leader at the time, made the motion for the contingency cut, and commented then that he had considered zeroing it out. He said the town should "manage down" line items to find savings to cover any settlements of union contracts with town employees.
Paul Hiller, the town's fiscal officer at the time, called the action "financial suicide" and Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn said it was "fiscally irresponsible." Flynn said the cut would leave the town exposed if something like a hurricane happened, forcing town officials to dip into the surplus.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau said cuts were made in town budgets to free up money for contract settlements, but added the town faces the same dilemma this year, with several union contracts expiring. He is recommending a $2.5 million contingency account.
Last year's RTM action, Flynn said this week, did exactly what he had predicted.
"I never wished I was wrong more that I do right now," Flynn said. "It gives me no great satisfaction." He said cutting the contingency account doesn't address the issue of spending. "It's a level of risk that, as a financial steward of the town, I don't think is appropriate to take," he said.
While Fairfield expects FEMA reimbursements for Sandy and the blizzard, Flynn said they won't really know how much until that money is received. In the meantime, he said, expenses like overtime pay for employees is money that is "out the door."
Becker, however, said this week he'd still push for the contingency account reduction. "Year after year there are surpluses well over a million dollars, which is a good thing to have but also shows the excess in the budget," Becker said, "and the lack of a need for a large contingency."
He said storms like Sandy often come with "substantial" FEMA reimbursements, ultimately reducing the town's costs. "It might make a good talking point to say the storm cost our town millions, but in the end with the reimbursements the number is going to be quite a bit lower," Becker said. He said he anticipated the cuts made by the first selectman and the favorable contract negotiations would provide the needed breathing room in the budget.
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