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Montpelier spends more on salt than Burlington

Montpelier, Vermont first snowfall 2011
Montpelier, Vermont first snowfall 2011
Keith Vance

Here's a fun Montpelier budget fact.

The city of Montpelier, with a population of just shy of 8,000 people, is budgeting $218,028 to salt city streets and sidewalks in the budget currently under discussion.

When contacted, the department of public works for Burlington, with a population slightly north of 40,000, said they spend about $180,000 a year on salt.

In 2011, Burlington spent $231,087 on salt. In 2012, it was dropped down to $180,000 and bumped up to $186,000 for fiscal year 2013.

So the trend in Burlington has been to spend less on salt.

But looking at Montpelier's budget, the 2012 budgeted $191,400 and spent $188,825. The adopted budget for fiscal year 2013 includes $204,400 for salt. Next year's proposed budget calls for spending $218,028 on salt for one winter.

Here's City Manager William Fraser's response to this story.

There are several factors, however, that could contribute to this. Population is really only a small portion. Traffic volumes play a role to reduce salt need. More cars create more road friction which assists in melting snow. Therefore higher traffic volumes can actually relate to lower need for salt because the "heat" from tires is doing some of the work. Busy interstates require less salting than lightly traveled interstates because ice doesn’t build up as badly on the busy roads. Ever notice on 89 in a storm how the travel lane is often clear where all the cars drive but the passing lane is covered over with snow or ice?

We are in a different climate zone than Burlington – not on the lake and about 300 feet higher in altitude. Doesn’t seem like much but we typically have much more frequent winter weather events than they do. We average 100" of snow per winter while they average 80". Therefore we are likely to get called out for icy or slippery roads more than they do.

Second, they have the one big hill leading up to UVM but overall we have much more hilly terrain throughout the city which can lead to hazardous driving conditions and requires more attention to keep the roads (and sidewalks) safe. Several of our steep and curvy hills require very immediate and concentrated attention as soon as slippery conditions present themselves.

Third, we are in a different purchasing area. The Chittenden county communities buy a lot of salt in bulk and may get better prices. Central Vermont doesn’t have that same economic clout, it is likely (I don’t know this for fact but will check, I doubt it's 23% but I bet its lower) that we pay more per ton of salt than they do.

Add that up - more storms, greater need on hills, higher prices – and it is possible that we could spend more. Again I don't know the numbers but the scenario is plausible.

That said, we are making a concerted effort this winter to reduce salt use. I observed during the holiday week storms that many of the side streets had a layer of snow on them for a day or two when in the past they would have been clear just like the main roads. This is a direct result of reduced salting on the side streets. We're trying to manage those costs while still keeping things passable.

Fraser's reference to a 23 percent difference between Montpelier's salt consumption and Burlington's is related to the amount of salt each city purchases.

In an email, Fraser said that Burlington uses 3,800 tons of salt a year and Montpelier uses 3,100 tons a year. That, Fraser said means Burlington uses 23 percent more salt than Montpelier.

Burlington is however a city that is nearly six times the size of Montpelier in terms of population.

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