WASHINGTON (Reuters) - By Brendan O'Brien and Karen Matz
MILWAUKEE, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Snowfall well below normal in the Midwest and much of the country this winter has given cash-strapped municipalities some unexpected good news.
In Milwaukee, where the city spent $1.9 million clearing snow and ice in the final three months of 2010 and $2.4 million a year before that, the public works department has spent only $405,000 in snow cleanup during the fourth quarter of 2011.
"It means a cost savings that we can spend in other areas that we so desperately need to spend money," said Cecilia Gilbert, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works.
In Madison, Wisconsin, the city routinely budgets for six big snowstorms a year, each typically costing about $300,000 in overtime, salt and other outlays.
But so far in calendar 2011, Madison has had only five significant snowstorms. So the city could realize $300,000 in savings - provided it does not snow before New Year's Day.
"It would help the city of Madison huge if we don't have to spend that money," said Chris Kelley, the city's interim streets superintendent.
The story is much the same elsewhere this winter, capping a strange year for U.S. weather marked by hurricanes, record wildfires, massive flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and tornadoes that lashed cities like Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing hundreds of people.
Tom Kines, a meteorologist at AccuWeather, said snowfall has remained light in an unusually wide swath of the country.
Chicago, which normally sees 11 inches of snow by this time of year, has only had 1.7 inches. Detroit, which usually gets 13 inches by now, has seen less than half that. From Minneapolis to New York City. the story is similar.
SCARCE COMMODITY: COLD AIR
The issue hasn't been a lack of precipitation, Kines said. In most locations except Minneapolis, precipitation levels have been above normal this season, he says.
The issue had been a lack of cold air.
In Madison, this December has been the 10th warmest on record. The lack of snow has let city workers concentrate on brush and leaf pickups, two tasks that typically suffer during heavy snowfalls.
"The city has never looked so clean," Kelley said.
In December 2010, Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation spent $6 million on snow removal. With less than a week to go in 2011, the city has spent just $500,000 on trucks, labor and salt this month.
"It's money and resources we have not had to spend yet," said Matt Smith, spokesman for Chicago Streets and Sanitation. "But Chicago winters last more than a month."
Indianapolis Public Works spokeswoman Kara Brooks said the city, which spent $3.2 million on snow removal by this time last winter, has spent only $253,000 this winter so far.
But there's no thought of moving the money saved to other expenses yet because "we still have a lot of winter ahead of us," Brooks said.
Generally, January and February are the city's snowiest months. Indianapolis is also hosting the Super Bowl in February and officials are planning to be ready for adverse weather.
In Cleveland, where nearly a quarter of city workers laid off this year as a result of budget cuts came from the department responsible for snow removal, the below-normal snowfall represents an unexpected stroke of luck.
But Kines said the luck is unlikely to last in 2012.
"If I were a betting man, at some point, they're going to pay for it," he said. "Not so much in money, but in a storm or two."
(Additional reporting by David Hendee, Susan Guyett and Kim Palmer; Editing by James B. Kelleher, Tood Eastham and Jan Paschal)