Costs of a long winter

SARANAC LAKE – Four years ago, the village built a 9,000-square-foot storage shed on Van Buren Street to hold the sand and salt it uses each winter to keep village streets clear of snow and ice.

Normally it’s filled to the rafters, but not right now. It’s largely empty, except for a moderate-sized pile of sand at the end of the building and a small pile of salt near its entrance.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen the back of the shed, which makes me a little bit nervous,” said village Manager John Sweeney. “Our inventories of sand and salt are way down.”

Because of one of the longest and coldest winters the area has experienced in years. Local highway and public works departments have been burning through their salt and sand supplies, dealing with countless frozen water lines and racking up a lot of overtime.

“This has been the most pothole and frozen storm drain and frozen water line winter that we’ve ever seen,” said Tupper Lake Department of Public Works Superintendent Mike Sparks.

And it’s not over yet. While the calendar says today is the first day of spring, winter still has a stranglehold on the region. The National Weather Service forecast for the area calls for some chance of snow almost every day for the next week.

Sand, salt

With the exception of the winter of 2010-11, Sweeney said the village used less than 3,000 cubic yards of sand-salt mix each of the last four winters. This year, the village has used 4,700 yards so far.

“We went through what we put up this year and almost all of last year’s, what was left over,” said Kevin Pratt, the village’s wastewater treatment plant operator.

“It obviously hurts because we have to replace that in next year’s budget,” Sweeney said.

The village mines its own sand from its sand pit off Will Rogers Drive, but it buys salt, usually 400 tons each year. This year, Pratt said the village will have to buy 600 tons to be ready for next winter. And it won’t cost the same as last year, said village Treasurer Paul Ellis.

“Now, because everybody’s going to want to stock up on salt, we’ll probably see a $10 increase alone in the price of salt per ton,” he said. “Now it’s about $61 per ton. I’m budgeting at least $70 a ton for next year.”

Town of Tupper Lake Highway Superintendent Bill Dechene said his crews have had a busy winter even though there hasn’t been much snow.

“A lot of times we go out plowing just for one or two inches, but the cold weather has been the story,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of problems with ice this year.”

The town’s salt and sand supplies are “holding out OK, but I think we’ve used more this year than in the past couple years,” Dechene said.

Sparks said his village “chewed” through a big pile of salt and sand mix, roughly 1,500 yards, this winter. In an average year, the village uses about 1,000 yards, he said.

In Lake Placid, village crews have used 840 tons of salt, most of it on sidewalks, according to village DPW Superintendent Brad Hathaway. In a normal year, the village would use about 700 tons, he said. The department has put down about 4,000 tons of sand on village roads this year. Hathaway said that’s a little more than the last few years.

“We had a lot of ice mixed with a lot of cold weather this year,” Hathaway said. “We’d get rain; then at night it would drop below zero, icing up the sidewalks. We used a lot of salt early with the icing events.”


With all the work, Sweeney and Ellis said village employees have accumulated a lot of overtime this winter, although they couldn’t provide specific numbers.

“Looking at rough comparisons to last year, we’re definitely higher on overtime,” Ellis said. “It could be related to a number of factors, like if there was extra work related to Winter Carnival and things like that, but overall the trend is higher. It’s not drastic. We try to budget for this type of contingency, but this (winter) was harsher than we thought.”

Hathaway said his employees have also put in a lot of overtime this winter, which he said is typical for an event-driven community like Lake Placid. The weather-related overtime has come later in the season like during last week’s snowstorm.

“I had guys last week that had over 30 hours of overtime on top of their regular 40 hours, but we’ve had a lot of weeks where there wasn’t much,” he said. “One of the tough things is, at this time of the year, the guys are looking for a break from it, but it keeps dragging on.”

Dechene said he believes overtime for his workers is lower than normal because there hasn’t been as much snow and they’ve been able to plow during their normal hours.

Frozen water lines

Water and sewer line freeze-ups have been a big issue this year for many communities due to the bitter cold temperatures.

“Our village water department, which is a separate department, those guys have been busy,” Sparks said. “They’ve been working hard with frozen lines and broken lines, and it’s hard when you’re doing that.”

“I think all villages and towns are having this problem,” Hathaway said. “The frost line is so deep this year because it’s been cold for such a long time. We’ve had a lot of frozen service lines to houses, and a few sewer lines. We’re still getting calls. They go in spurts.”


Potholes have also been a big problem. Many local streets are riddled with huge craters that pool up with water when the snow melts.

Pratt said the roads that are the worst in Saranac Lake are the ones slated for construction this spring, including Lake Flower Avenue and Broadway.

“They’re patching in the holes almost every day, but it just blows back out,” Pratt said.

“There’s a lot more potholes than normal,” Hathaway said of the roads in Lake Placid. “Anytime you get these fluctuations in temperature, anywhere that water can puddle up and freeze or thaw back and forth, that causes a lot of issues. We use a cold patch, but it doesn’t really stay when it warms up and you get a puddle of water on top of it. It will splash right out when the cars drive through.”

Ready for spring

Sweeney said the long winter has affected morale.

“I think everybody’s starting to go, ‘I’m ready to be done,'” he said. “They know what they’ve got to do and they do it, but I just think everybody’s wishing for some sunshine.”

“We’re all in pretty good spirits, but we’d just like to see the warm weather get here and stay here,” Hathaway said.

If they’re waiting for spring break, people will have to slug it out for a while longer. The spring break offered by local schools – two weeks for Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, one week for Tupper Lake – is late this year. It doesn’t start until April 14.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or