A Personal Connection-The Economic Impact of a Light Winter

Hank Manz

By Hank Manz  |  Shortly after I was elected as a selectman in Lexington, my outlook on snow began to change.   No longer was it that attractive blanket which made the town look like a Norman Rockwell painting and which, thankfully, covered the leaves I hadn’t raked in the fall.  Snow costs money.  Not only must the town pay overtime for DPW workers, but they must also contract with private plowers to augment town equipment and personnel.  The town must pay for salt and sand and then, after the salt and sand has eaten away and abraded the road surface, the town must pay again for early maintenance.  Plowing sometimes rips up curbing and tears out patches in the road.  More money for repairs.  When budget time comes around as it inevitably does, then the realization hits that, once again, taxes are going to go up if we wish to maintain services.

Fall came and went this year without much in the way of brilliant colors and also without much bad weather except for a hurricane and a winter storm which cost us some trees, but did little in the way of damage to buildings.  I stopped in at Ranc’s for some ice cream on one of the few cold days in January and found Joe less than enthusiastic about the temporarily freezing weather. For the most part, however, the weather has been mild.  At home, with a new, more efficient, heating system installed last summer, we have been much more comfortable, both physically and fiscally than we were last winter. Even with the price of oil up, consumption is far below that of last year—a combination of a better boiler and better weather. The woodpile which feeds our woodstove is getting a bit low so I will have to split some more wood soon. This is a lot easier job that usual given the lack of snow. I suspect that Curt, an owner of a local insurance company, is happier because with no snow and ice, the claims rate has not yet taken the usual seasonal jump. The weather is so warm that the family cat has not had to take up his winter place under the woodstove where I am sure he passes the time wondering why humans insist on making it cold and wet outside. If I spoke Cat, I would probably find out that what he is saying when snow is falling is “Do I have to draw you doltish humans a diagram?”

So it was with a light heart that I broached the topic of no snow with Susan who was until recently the manager of the local branch of Brookline Bank. That led to an extended conversation while she filled me in on the other side of the coin.  No snow means no plowing which is how the private plowers, most of them landscapers or contractors in the building trades, pay for the trucks they use all year round.  No cold weather means fewer oil deliveries which has a heavy impact on oil dealers because they have contracted to buy a minimum number of gallons of fuel from the distributors and now they might not be able to meet those minimums so they could be in trouble.  No cold weather means that even if the local shoe stores avoid getting stuck with a huge inventory of boots which will be out of style by next year, there is a good chance that somebody will lose money on that inventory somewhere.  Of course no snow means that people like me will make their boots last another year even though the pair I wear most often has several hot-glue patches on them. No snow means many local stores are carrying large inventories of shovels, scrapers, sand, salt, and windshield washer fluid.  They should have sold at least half of the stock by now, but now they may be stuck twice—they are paying for storage and eventually they may have to fire sale the leftovers. Susan had at least two dozen examples and I could think of even more as we talked.  It means, for instance, that I might have trouble getting donations for the youth hockey league I help run because local businesses are the main source of those donations.

This was an amazing revelation—snow is an economic engine for the economy of the small town in which I live.  Could it be that the half a million dollars or more the town spends in most years for removal is nothing compared to the economic boost it gives many of the citizens who pay for that removal with their tax dollars? Then they, in turn, can afford to pay their taxes which helps keep the town solvent.

Bursting with my new-found knowledge, I started the task of convincing the citizenry by talking to my spouse.  She wasn’t buying it, even after I pointed out that her own windshield scraper, broken last winter, has not had to be replaced.  Sad to say, only a very small number immediately bought my explanation, including guys like Mike who runs a landscaping business and plows in the winter.  Fortunately, with the Super Bowl over, a weekend snowstorm may excite more interest in plowing than it would have just a few weeks ago.

But I still believe in the economic engine theory and should it snow, I will be sad that the town’s financial problems will be worse in the short term, but glad that Dick will sell some boots, that Mike might get some plowing time in, and that Lexington Ace Hardware will sell at least a few shovels.  To prepare for what must surely come, I will buy my wife a new windshield brush and scraper for her car, but while I am on that errand, I will stop at Joe’s for an ice cream sundae and I will drive very carefully so Curt will not suffer. You know—my boots are looking a bit the worse for wear so just maybe I will be paying a visit to Michelson’s very soon. It has to snow eventually, right? But please, not in April …

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