SUSSEX COUNTY-As Monday reminded us, it's that time of year again when winter weather forecasters become almost as popular as sports prognosticators. But for local officials, there's more than snow, sleet and ice to worry about. There's also salt. Late last winter, many towns, including Vernon, nearly ran out of salt when a shipment from South America was delayed. The situation in that township was so critical that road crews were mixing salt with a lot of sand then going back after the snow melted and sweeping up the sand to use again. A delayed shipment of salt arrived just in time to allow the township to deal with the last storm of the winter. Officials hope that won't happen again, but flooding in U.S. mines in New York and Louisiana has left the area dependent on salt imported from abroad n principally South America. And, because towns can store only so much salt, there is no guarantee that the same thing won't happen again. Yet, administrators say they regardless. "I don't know how deliveries are going to go this year," said Edward Snook, Vernon's public works director. "And what we have is what we have. It will be on a need basis only. And we only have so much room to store it. "You can only store so much under cover," Snook added. "You can't store it outside; it has to be in a salt shed." Lafayette is working around that problem by adding an additional salt shed, which should be in operation by next year, said John D'Angeli, the township committee's liaison to the road department. In the meantime, the town will work and plan accordingly. "It depends on what kind of winter we have," D'Angeli explained. "So we'll just have to cross our fingers. It's touch-and-go. Nobody predicted four hurricanes in Florida, either, but it happened." In Hardyston, public works director Robert Schultz says budgeting is done ahead of time by using the average salt usage from the previous five years to plan for the year ahead. In addition, many towns, Hardyston included, have worked in a co-op program with neighboring communities, which can help control cost. But that has its limitations as well. "We try to use good relations with our neighbors, but it comes to a point where everyone has to ration," Schultz said. "It really comes to a point where you're just stuck. We do have local salt mines, but our suppliers out of Port Newark are usually our lowest bidders. And it's just a matter of getting it from overseas." Snook, who uses a weather service and even the Farmer's Almanac, said that predictions are for this month to produce the "normal snowfall," with a "respite" to follow in January. More storms will likely follow in February and March, he said. But such broad predictions are as often wrong as they are right. D'Angeli said that Bill Macko, Lafayette's road foreman, is in constant contact with the county, and he usually "is on top" of winter forecasts and planning. "And the county's very good," D'Angeli said. The differences in salt needed varies on the size of the town itself, said Jeffrey Card, the certified public works manager for the Borough of Sussex. Vernon, at 69 square miles, is Sussex County's largest town, and needs a lot more in salt than Sussex Borough, which, at less than one square mile, is the county's smallest community. "It's one of those things you have to weigh out," explained Card. Much as he'd like to economize in the cash-strapped town by buying less salt rather than more, he feels it's important to have too much rather than too little. And in a small town, it's easier to keep a surplus. "What good is saving money on tons of salt if somebody gets hurt?" he asked. "You can't justify that. When it comes to public safety and welfare, the motivation cannot be for saving money. You have to provide the service." "I've never had a problem," said Card, who added his town has opted out of the co-op program. "Normally, I only use about 50 tons of salt a year. Fifty tons is nothing to use in a normal year, but that's all I use. It's really hard to compare us with anybody."