Mild winter cheers utility customers but hurts hardware stores

Leroy Andrews, after more than 40 years in the hardware business, has never seen a winter quite like this one.

The Kansas City area’s relatively balmy temperatures even spurred sales of


house paint as homeowners took advantage of the good weather.

But the problem, said the store manager of Strasser True Value Hardware, is that he still has mounds of snow shovels, ice melt and other cold-weather goods that have been slow sellers.

Last week’s cold blast and snow — one-fourth to three-fourths of an inch depending where you live — didn’t help Andrews much.

“We would like to have a good snow to clean it out,” he said.

Add to last week’s dusting the tenth of an inch we had earlier in the season and we haven’t had much snow any way you measure it. There will be more snow, say weather forecasters, but this winter is on track to be among the least snowy.

“The best odds are we’ll end up in the bottom end of seasonal snowfall in Kansas City history,” said Mark O’Malley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The record low for snow was set in the winter of 1922-23 with 4.5 inches. The highest was 67 inches during the 1911-1912 season, followed closely by the last two winters, which together dumped 80 inches on the Kansas City area. Last winter by this time, Kansas City already had more than 10 inches of snow.

Sunday’s sunny weather pushed temperatures to a high of 62 degrees and filled the Country Club Plaza with shoppers and strollers.

Three-year-olds Eli, Tony and Calvin filled the three-seat stroller that Doug Nichols pushed north on Broadway toward 47th Street around 4:30 p.m. with Holly Nichols in tow. The Wichita family wouldn’t have come up had snow been in the forecast.

Still, it’s not winter without the white.

“I want more snow,” Holly Nichols said. “It’s why I like Kansas. I like the seasons.”

So far, a mild winter means consumers are saving on heating bills. And businesses that can be stopped cold by snow and low temperatures are getting a reprieve.

Area golf courses, after seeing few golfers last winter, have a brisk business this time around. At the Paradise Pointe Golf Complex in Smithville, manager Eddie Hall said courses had been busy on most days. But that can change in a hurry.

Even if it does snow and become colder, said Brett Berry, he will be ahead of last winter. The owner of Outdoor Living Construction in Lee’s Summit builds outdoor patios, with options such as cooking stations. Last winter the weather was so bad he couldn’t work for four months.

But not this time.

“We haven’t missed a day in this one,” he said.

Jim Williams, vice president at Spencer Reed, an employment agency in Overland Park, said that in the two previous winters some businesses closed because of such things as pipes bursting. The temporary shutdowns meant that temporary workers weren’t needed for those days. So far this year, there have been no weather shutdowns.

Some area companies have been able to take advantage of warmer and drier weather in other parts of the country as well. Black Veatch, the Overland Park engineering company, has been able to keep crews working longer on power transmission and telecommunications projects that require outdoor work.

For other businesses, the effects of a good or bad winter are mixed and not always what you may think. Hardware stores benefit from the sale of snow shovels and other winter goods, and those can get a boost even with even a small amount of snow. But selling things for outdoor projects that can be done in warmer weather also helps.

At Hermes Landscaping Inc. in Lenexa, the absence of snow has meant an absence of snow-clearing work that typically keeps the business occupied and employees busy after the grass stops growing and bushes don’t need trimming.

This winter a toasty December and early January meant Hermes could continue working on landscaping. It gave the company more time to clean up autumn leaves. That makes it easier to apply lawn treatments that will green things up come springtime, said sales manager Jason Opheim.

The firm’s employment levels during the summer can range from 100 to 150 people and can drop by 60 or 70 percent in the winter. So far, the weather has essentially been a wash for Hermes, allowing for offseason landscaping work that pretty much makes up for the lost snow removal business.

For consumers, cheaper utility bills are a major benefit of warmer winter. The National Weather Service, using figures to show how weather changes affect demand for energy, found that so far about 8 percent less natural gas, propane or electricity is being used to heat homes and businesses in the Kansas City area compared with last winter. Most of those savings were in December when it was notably warmer than a year earlier.

John Rich, executive director of the Mid America Assistance Coalition, which helps those with low incomes pay their utility bills, said his December bill dropped by 20 percent.

“I don’t like high heating bills either,” he said, adding that even though heating costs have declined there are still plenty who are struggling to pay them.

Dawn Ewing, a spokeswoman for Kansas Gas Service, said gas usage was down about 15 percent for its customers in December, reducing by more than 2,000 cubic feet the amount of natural gas used by an average residential customer. The cost of gas, which pays the wholesale cost of the fuel plus transportation, is now $5.15 per 1,000 cubic feet, saving an average user just over $10 for the month.

Most gas utilities aren’t being hurt financially from the downturn in sales. Missouri Gas Energy and Kansas Gas Service have rates allowing them to recover their overhead expenses such as labor. And the rate of return or profit is approved by state regulators regardless of how much natural gas is sold.

“We’re not hurting by any means,” said Jason Fulp, a spokesman for Missouri Gas Energy.

Municipal governments are also seeing a warm weather dividend. But some serious snow could still fall. The area has dodged a budgetary bullet, unlike several cities, including St. Louis and Chicago, that have been hit by heavy snowfalls.

Kansas City budgets $2.75 million annually for snow removal. Expenses have exceeded that amount in recent years, but so far it appears this year might bring some budget relief.

Budget analysts say Kansas City government has saved about $200,000 in snow removal costs so far compared with last winter. That savings is primarily from overtime for the crews, gasoline, and maintenance on the snow removal machines.

City spokesman Dennis Gagnon said the city doesn’t yet count savings on salt, because that purchase had already been made. But if the weather stays mild, Gagnon said, the city conceivably could save more than $1 million in salt supplies that it wouldn’t have to replenish for next year.

However, Gagnon recalled that the brunt of last year’s winter kicked in about mid-January, so he said Kansas City isn’t yet counting on lower costs.

Overland Park has already realized some savings this winter over last, according to Maintenance Manager Rich Profaizer. By this time last winter, the city had put down 3,000 tons of salt on the roads. At $50 per ton, that’s a savings of $150,000. The city is also saving on overtime as crews don’t have to remove snow on weekends and after normal business hours.

Diane Stafford, Scott Canon and Mark Davis contributed to this article.