Winter is coming: Road salt prices are on the rise
WILMINGTON -- A recent drop in temperatures has reminded us that colder weather is on its way and the Farmers' Almanac is predicting another rough winter.
Towns in Vermont and New York reported having difficulties keeping enough salt for the roads in its facilities last year.
"We had reports from all over the state that basically salt sheds were empty. We seemed to have lucked out that when they were empty, that terrible winter finally stopped," Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steven Jeffrey said. "There was a lot of borrowing and lending of salt between towns and between the state and the towns near the end, which got us through just by the skin of our teeth."
Last year, Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy said the Highway Department had stockpiled enough salt so there was no problem with supply.
"The only problem is the 35 percent price increase, which was not budgeted for," he said. "Who can budget for that type of price increase?"
As standard practice, the town anticipates a 10 percent increase. But this year's increase is considered very unusual, Murphy told the Reformer. He recalled towns looking all over for salt during last year's shortage.
"They were paying an exorbitant price to get it. I think this is an after effect of that," Murphy added.
When the state bid came in, Wilmington officials checked with other companies that all seemed to have adopted a new policy that included not selling to towns which didn't buy from them last year.
"They're really short, they said. I think people are going to be scrambling around again this year," said Murphy.
Wilmington will go with Cargill's bid for towns. For its district, the town will pay $90.18 per ton. Last winter, the town's Highway Department used about 800 tons of salt for maintaining its roads.
Murphy said the state's been scaling back on its salt use and has encouraged towns to do the same.
"Our crews are trying to but there's certain times of winter when we need roads cleared. Friday night, skiers are coming up from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. And they're coming whether snow's flying or not," Murphy said. "We have to make sure the roads are clear."
He pointed out more than 50 percent of Wilmington's tax base is made up of second homeowners and roads must be especially groomed during Christmas, Martin Luther King weekend and February vacations.
According to Brattleboro Director of Public Works Steve Barrett, the price of salt usually goes up 5 to 6 percent each year. He is looking at a 41 percent increase over last year's price, which was not anticipated at all.
"That's a huge amount and it affects our budget because what we normally do is budget based on five-year averages," Barrett said. "Some years, your consumption will be lower. Last year was a pretty challenging winter."
The DPW exceeded its budget last year due to increased salt consumption. Adjustments had to be made to other line items. That usually means taking money out of road maintenance or summer work.
In recent years, one way Barrett's crew has cut down on its use of salt involved using an applicator, which is a piece of electronics that computes the number of pounds per salt per lane mile. The device has helped the town save money. Barrett estimates that by using it, the DPW reduced its salt consumption by over 25 percent.
The state requested bids from five companies this year, according to Jeffrey from VLCT. Cargill won the bid for state highways and American Salt was another option presented to towns and cities in Vermont. Those were the only two companies that bid on supplying the state and only Cargill agreed to a state contracted price for towns.
"The unit cost for American Salt is a little bit less but not guaranteed throughout the winter," Barrett said. "Cargill is more of a known number so we're going to go with Cargill. That's the state bid and that's the best unit price we're going to receive for the product so we have to go for it."
Wilmington and Halifax have also approved purchases from Cargill.
Halifax Selectboard Chairman Lewis Sumner told the Reformer the price went up 22 percent for his town.
"There's not much we can do about it," he said. "Hopefully, we won't have to use so much salt for the winter but who knows? With everything we buy, it just seems like it's skyrocketing."
Jeffrey could not recall seeing such high increases for the price of salt in years past. He said it was a pretty startling increase but not totally unexpected given the experience last year.
Much of the cost to towns will depend on usage. If the winter is similar to last year's, Jeffrey said it could impact towns' budgets and tax rates. The prices he sent to towns were approximately 21 to 40 percent above the figures from last season.
In an e-mail, Jeffrey wrote "the state estimates that if they need to use as much salt as they did last winter, it will spend $2.5 million more than it did last year" and there was no guarantee that supply issues would not occur again this year.
As far as predicting how much salt towns will need, he told the Reformer it would depend on how many miles of highway lanes towns maintain as well as what is paved and what is gravel. Gravel roads do not usually require a lot of salt.
"There's a lot of guestimation that needs to go on every year," Jeffrey said. "I would venture to say no two towns buy the same amount in a given year."
For now, the choices are limited.
"(Towns can) lock into a contract for delivery of a certain amount of salt for a year and the substantially increased rate or try and take their chances and hope that the winter is an easy one, that supplies ease up and the suppliers drop their prices," Jeffrey concluded. "The problem with taking that second option is that if we have a bad winter, you'll really be putting the safety of your traveling residents at risk."
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.