Low snowfall hurts plow drivers, store sales; cities saving money

New London — Frederick R. Whittle II, owner of a plowing company headquartered in Mystic, has been checking the weather app on his phone first thing every morning this winter, and every morning he's been disappointed.

This month's historic lack of snow and a mild winter season overall has left Whittle, and his 140 snowplow drivers, without work and has cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For the first time in nearly two decades, no snowfall has been recorded in Norwich in the month of February, according Da'Vel Johnson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. The last time no snow was measured in the area in February was in 2002. On average, about 6.8 inches of snow normally is recorded in February, with more than 10 inches recorded during the month in three of the past 10 years — and some, like 2013 and 2014, saw more than 20, according to NWS data.

"This is just a total disaster," said Whittle, owner of Allied Snow Plowing, Removal and Sanding Services Corp. With more than 200 clients in 36 Connecticut towns, the business owner relies on snowstorms to fund his company and give his drivers work. This year, he said he's made less than half what he typically makes each winter.

For most New London County residents, the lack of any real winter weather this month has been something to celebrate — flowers are budding in February, high temperatures have let residents shed their heavy coats and snow removal budgets are left mostly untapped, leaving leftover funds for road repairs and city projects.

But for many local business owners, like Whittle, not getting hit with snowstorms this February has caused their companies to take another kind of hit.

Whittle said he employs about 70 full-time employees and another 70 subcontractors. He estimates that each of them has lost tens of thousands of dollars this year.

Allied Snow Plowing plows dozens of properties in New London County, including the Coast Guard Academy, the New London courthouse and Stop & Shop Plaza in Waterford. Half of the sites Allied Snow Plowing plows are under contract, meaning they pay no matter how much it snows, but the other 100 pay per visit "and they aren't paying because there's nothing to do," Whittle said.

Typically, plow drivers get about 20 hours of work per snowstorm.

"Most storms average about 10 to 12 hours, then they take about four to six hours of cleanup after the final flake falls," Whittle said. His company typically responds to about nine or 10 storms per year. This year, its gone out about half of that.

"Everyone is out of work, it's basically like not having a job right now," Whittle said.

His plow drivers, he said, depend on the work differently. Some use their plow pay for necessities, others use it as extra cash. But this year, none of the drivers is making anything.

"It's bread and milk on the table for some, vacations for other families and filling the oil tank for others," he said. "It affects everybody differently, but it definitely affects everyone."

Mike Stiefel, owner of Mike and Sons Plowing LLC in Montville, said his company normally prepares for about 10 to 15 snowstorms a year. This year, it barely got two outings. Typically, a slow winter leads to later storms in February, Stiefel said, but none has come.

"In 14 years in business, I've never seen a winter like this," he said. "Right now, I'm probably about eight snowstorms behind and at roughly about a $15,000 loss."

Stiefel, who primarily plows commercial properties in Montville and Norwich, said that being in the plow business in New England, he knows things can be unpredictable and has braced for slow-business winters before. But this season has been, by far, the slowest.

"We've had light years where we've only gotten 20 inches of snow but this is just something I've never seen before," he said. "I've never seen a season like this and the way it's looking, I don't think we're getting any more snow."

In addition to not earning money, Stiefel is taking on the additional expense of storing 15 tons of salt that he expected to use this winter and didn't.

Whittle said he keeps a lot of his salt stored on plowing sites during the season. Now, he has to pay about $70,000 just to move the 700 tons of salt he purchased, but probably won't use, into his own storage. With one contract, he also is facing a $75,000 rebate he owes if snowfall doesn't reach the 20-inch mark.

So far this year, only 3.8 inches of snowfall have been recorded in Norwich, according to Johnson. The National Weather Service has issued only six winter weather advisories in New London County this season — none in February — and hasn't issued any winter storm warnings.

Local meteorologist Gary Lessor, of Western Connecticut State University, said that it's unlikely that a tough winter is lurking around the corner waiting to drop inches of snow. Temperatures will drop this weekend, he said, but will be right back up to spring-like highs next week.

"Basically we didn't have winter," Lessor said. "We had an eternal fall that ran into early spring."

Though this year's mild weather isn't necessarily record-breaking, it has been on the warmer side. February has averaged about 35.6 degrees, which is higher than last year, but lower than 2018 and 2017.

"We've got a few days coming up of cold but this, too, is going to break," Lessor said. "The timing of precipitation and cold have not coincided at all."

"Basically, February has stolen March's thunder," he noted. "Typically in March you start to see some of the bulbs come through the ground, yet we're seeing some places where that's already happening. We're starting to see buds on the trees already, we're already seeing robins that you'd normally see in March — everything is being moved forward."

Stores trade shovels for spades

Besides plowing companies, businesses that sell snow-related items have seen a drop in winter-related sales this year and have made changes to prepare for early Spring.

At Job Lot stores in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, sales have made a quick shift from shovels and salt to potting soil and golfing attire. Paul Cox, director of store operations for the New England retailer, based out of North Kingstown, R.I., said stores definitely saw a significant decrease in the sale of winter weather-related items this year.

"When we have a real winter, it's sort of a trigger for us that brings people in to buy snow-fighting materials like shovels, ice melts, gloves and hats," he said. But that surge of shoppers never came this year.

Cox said that the stores definitely felt a decline from not selling winter supplies, but at the same time benefited from the early arrival of warm weather.

"Not having winter in January and February hurts a little and it's hard to replace the sales of shovels or multiple bags of ice melt, but people are buying soil and lime," Cox said. "When you have a weekend like last weekend, where it's 60 degrees and people are dying to get outside, we give them things to go out and play with, so we're going to sell."

Recognizing that the typically popular winter items weren't selling, Job Lot officials decided to push their spring inventory out earlier than usual. Items like potting plants and gardening tools, normally not on the shelves until March, were fully stocked in store by the beginning of February. "We've changed our front-of-store displays over to solar lighting and gardening gloves," Cox said.

Dean Tine, co-owner at Montville Hardware, said the experience was similar in his store. "Being that it's warm as well as there being no snow and ice, wood pellet sales are slower, coal is slower, roof rakes are a thing of the past," he said. "We haven't sold as much ice melt or shovels as we normally would."

But despite the decline in sales, Tine said the store is doing fine thanks to loyal customers that have kept it busy. Since it has many commercial businesses who shop there, the store still has been selling salt anytime there has been ice, and companies are buying other supplies.

Though the spring inventory isn't in full swing at Montville Hardware, staff started to put away the winter supplies much earlier than usual. They'll be leaving out a few snow brushes and warm winter hats, just in case, Tine said.

For the New London, a lack of snow has been a positive thing, saving the city quite a bit of money.

Brian Sear, director of public works, said that the city has spent only about $90,000 on winter weather preparedness this fiscal year, after budgeting about $380,000.

Such expenses are paid for through a state-funded grant called Town Aid Road. Each year, the city receives about $380,000 to pay for things like overtime labor for city employees and meals for those employees during storms, plow blades, equipment and repairs and enhanced salt.

The city is responsible for salting all city streets, municipal parking lots and school grounds. Occasionally, the city also will use Town Aid Road funding to pay for contractors if it needs more manpower. In the winter of 2014-15, for example, the city spent about $730,000 on winter weather-related expenses.

During a "normal winter" said Sear, the city typically uses between 1,200 and 2,000 tons of salt. But this year, which he called "a very strange time," the city has used only about 600 tons.

If the city has winter weather funds left over from the Town Aid Road grant, Sear said, the state allows municipalities to use the funding for highway- or road-related projects. Last year, the leftover funding allowed the city to spend $80,000 to implement signs and road markings for bike lanes. This year, extra funds will help finance a complex city project to update road signs.

The city plans to replace all older road signs and install new signs that feature the city logo and are more reflective, Sear said. After that, leftover funding may go toward paving and sidewalk repairs.

"With the cost being down on the weather, it just allows us to do a fair amount more road work," he said.

But, Sear said, city officials are making sure they don't get ahead of themselves. "It doesn't mean we're out of it. In previous years, we've had pretty robust storms throughout March, even into early April," he said. "We still could have some intense weather through the remainder of this winter."

The city of Norwich allots a similar amount for winter maintenance, with about $400,000 of the city's $11 million annual public works budget typically going toward snow removal and salting, according to Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin.

This year, the city has spent about $200,000 so far on winter maintenance. Saving on winter expenses will help the city, since extra funding "goes back to benefit the town in other areas that are in financial need," McLaughlin said.

Funds that are left over in the public works budget will go back to the city's general fund. The City Council can determine how to disperse those funds to city departments, such as police and fire, that may need extra funding. Last year, another relatively mild winter helped public works give $400,000 back to the general fund, McLaughlin said.

Though the owners of plowing companies are still checking the forecast hoping for snow, and stores are keeping some winter supplies on the shelves, a late winter doesn't seem likely.

Daytime temperatures in New London are forecast to stay between the high 30s and low 50s in the next week and, according to Nelson Vaz, warning coordination meteorologist at NWS in New York City, there is no sign of snow coming our way.

t.hartz@theday.com

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