The 2020-21 Snow Bowl budget approved Sept. 1 is scaled back nearly $500,000 from an earlier proposal.

Select Board members approved a $900,452 budget for the upcoming season at the town-owned ski area. This is down 4.8% from the 2020 budget of $945,892.

Actual spending in 2020 totaled $999,189. Revenues for 2020, totaling $1,008,907 were also higher than projections for that year.

On Aug. 4 Snow Bowl Manager Beth Ward and Town Manager Audra Caler presented a $1.39 million budget for the Snow Bowl, a 47% increase from 2020.

Board members delayed making a decision on Aug. 4, and instead asked for a less costly proposal in light of uncertainties posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They had also questioned the purchase of a new Piston Bully groomer that was driving up costs.

On Sept. 1, Caler presented two budget options. One option removed costs of the new groomer, while assuming a normal season. The other option removed the groomer and is based on pessimistic revenue projections, to protect against large financial losses.

The pessimistic revenue projections are not worst case scenario, according to Caler, but factor in revenue losses due to operational changes in ski areas required by the state, fewer day-ticket sales, a possible worsening of health indicators in Knox County or unfavorable weather conditions.

Board members and Caler agreed that the worst case scenario would be if there is another statewide lockdown after the ski area has incurred large upfront costs making snow, and hiring and training staff for the upcoming season.

Board members agreed they are not expecting worst case, or even pessimistic scenarios. Most board members said they are comfortable preparing for these scenarios with a conservative budget, by cutting expenses and lowering revenue projections.

Board Chairman Bob Falciani cautioned against underestimating the cost of electricity for snowmaking. While costs are budgeted at $80,000, he said he expects electricity could cost as much as $100,000 this season, based on last year's actual expenses.

Board Vice Chairwoman Alison McKellar said she had hoped that the cost-cutting scenarios would have been tied to the state's green, yellow and red health indicators for counties. She raised the issue of whether additional staff would be needed to help with answering questions and assisting with issues such as public relations and overseeing safe operations in regard to state requirements.

Caler pointed out that Ward has been working with the ski industry groups and state guidelines.

"We're trying to plan reopening without a final plan from the state, taking our best guess as to what a reopening plan will look like," she said. "As a town, we understand the risk of owning and operating this facility and everyone knows there's way more risk this year."

Board members acknowledged that a lot can change between now and the opening of the Snow Bowl, usually at the start of December school vacation.

Snow Bowl Assistant Manager Holly Edwards pointed out that the Snow Bowl's "Ski the Sea: Operating Best Practices" manual explains a lot of the changes required, from social distancing to use of face coverings.

The size limit of the upper floor of the lodge, where food is served and skiers go to warm up, means that only 15 people can be inside at any time, Edwards said. With six tables, that means two or three people to a table, she said. The small A-frame lodge is often packed on weekends and holidays, with every seat occupied and others standing on line for food, or where they can find room.

Board member Marc Ratner asked if the ski area could operate if the lodge had to be closed.

Ward said that has been discussed. "It would be tough on the kids for warming," she added. Management is looking at areas where Port-A-Potties can be located as well as the use of fire pits and propane heaters to create warming stations.

She is looking at prioritizing the ski mountain and some cutting back of costs and staff time grooming the terrain park. Costs will also depend on whether there is a fourth-grade skiing program and ski racing this year, she said.

Ratner said it is possible the coming season can be a good one, with the increased importance of outside exercise. The ski area has an exceptional opportunity to provide this for our citizens, he said.

Caler asked board members to keep in mind that the approved budget "is a starting point.

I'll commit that if there are changes, if we get to a point with snowmaking where it looks like we are going to spend $100,000 for electricity due to weather, if we don't get the cold snap in December — we could come back and ask for a budget adjustment."

She acknowledged this is not normal procedure, but that there is a "high degree of uncertainty this year."