The Minnesota Department of Transportation spent a record $67.5 million last winter removing snow and ice from state highways, which MnDOT maintenance engineer Steven Lund calls “our No. 1 priority.” That was a 55 percent increase from the 2004-05 level, which may surprise some Minnesotans who hail Gov. Tim Pawlenty for supposedly cutting state government spending.
“We tend to fund winter needs at the level they need,” Lund said. “If necessary, we take it from summer activities like grading ditches or filling potholes, anything that can be deferred without compromising safety. Winter is our bread and butter. We take pride in that.”
We can’t argue with that policy. Unfortunately, it’s been a lot tougher for Minnesota communities, often a target of Pawlenty’s criticism for their spending decisions, to follow suit. The governor’s cuts in state revenue sharing to cities have forced many to raise property taxes even as they slash or hold the line on things like snow plowing.
According to the League of Minnesota Cities, cities from Battle Lake to Wadena to Lakeville to Mankato to Red Wing have reduced their snow budgets this year. Minneapolis had to cut its by $1.4 million. Hastings dropped downtown plowing on weekends. Other places logged small increases but still expect to go over budget once all the bills from the Christmas weekend storm are in. Barrett was already $5,000 over its $20,000 line item before the storm. Climax, Elgin, Fergus Falls and Owatonna all expect to bust their snow budgets. New Ulm, which instituted a no-overtime policy except in emergencies as a money saver, is more than $20,000 over its $36,600 snow budget anyway.
Lund said MnDOT’s snow removal outlays have been pumped up by inflation, especially in fuel and salt, as well as worse weather. Minnesota’s budget process doesn’t consider inflation, except on the revenue-collection side, but the highways still get promptly cleared – in 0 to 36 hours after snowfall ends, depending on traffic counts – no matter the cost. If only local governments, facing the same cost and weather pressures along with deep revenue cuts, had the means to do the same.