Severe weather taking a toll on association budgets

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With 60-plus inches of snow so far and more to come, this winter is among the snowiest on record. It's also a costly one for community associations. They pay from their treasuries to shovel and plow streets, driveways and sidewalks. This season they are paying far more than they planned.

"The winter has been great for us, but it is draining association budgets," said Kevin Block of ILT Vignocchi, a Wauconda-based landscape and snow removal company. "Associations got lackadaisical about funding for snow removal over the last few years. Now, Mother Nature has come back to get us."

"It's not uncommon for our associations to be as much as 300 percent over their snow removal budgets," said Michael Rutkowski, president of First Community Management in Chicago.

According to the National Weather Service, the average seasonal snowfall in the Chicago area is 38 inches. Last year's total was 30 inches. The 2011-12 total was 20 inches, and the 2010-11 total was 58 inches.

There are two ways associations generally pay for snow removal. Some pay each time the plows come, and others pay a set fee for the season. When the winter is mild, associations that pay per snowfall spend less than those with seasonal contracts. When snowfalls are frequent, associations with seasonal contracts win out.

This year, even associations with contracts are running over budget. That's because contracts aren't unlimited. They typically specify additional charges for heavier snowfalls, perhaps over 8 inches, and after the seasonal total reaches a particular threshold. Ice-melting compounds also cost extra. And if snow has to be hauled away because there's no place to pile it, that's another expense.

"Financially, almost all our contracts are at or close to the maximum," said Andrea Sorgani, president of ALMA Property Management Services Inc. in Schaumburg.

But the cost of snow removal isn't the only challenge. Buildings with central heat are consuming more fuel as temperatures dive. Refuse pickup was postponed in some municipalities, so trash bins left outside were blown over by fierce winds. Their contents have been strewn about and sometimes buried by the next snow.

Then there are the plumbing pipes that freeze and break when they thaw. Fred Schroeder of J.C. Restoration in Rolling Meadows, said crews have been working around the clock to repair and remediate water damage.

"Broken pipes typically don't affect just one unit," he said. "The water travels quickly to adjacent units and the units below."

Another frequent problem is fire, which may be started by malfunctioning space heaters or improper use of blowtorches to thaw frozen pipes, he added.

The full extent of winter's ravages won't be known until spring. That's when roof leaks caused by ice damming and turf damage from snowplows will show up. Many outdoor swimming pools will be severely chipped and cracked, said Pat Berk, president of Pool Watch Inc. in Roselle.

"It's been so cold for so long," she said. "Those tiles are going to be lying on the bottom of the pools. They'll just pop off."

As associations sort through the bills, they will face tough choices. Some will take money from reserve accounts or landscaping budgets. Others will postpone capital projects that are scheduled for this year.

Even the most diligent budget planning can't accurately predict the cost of winter, Sorgani said.

"What associations should do is pass a special assessment just for the snow," she said.

"That way, you're not borrowing from the reserve fund or for operations, and it's done and over."

For next winter, don't make major changes in your snow removal contract, said Sherm Fields, president of Plainfield-based Acres Group landscaping and snow removal company. The company has conducted cost-comparison studies between paying per season and per snowfall. Over five-year periods, the difference is a mere 3 percent.

"Stay with what you started with," he said. "It evens out."

ctc-realestate@tribune.com

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