Baltimore County's Snow Woes

January 24, 1994

After the blizzard of March 1993 and last week's highly unusual deep freeze, folks keeping score in Baltimore County should have the following tally:

Mother Nature 2, Hayden administration 0.

No question, those two weather events were well beyond the ordinary. Both proved particularly hazardous for the stubborn crusts of ice they left on roadways throughout the jurisdiction. But what they also had in common was the way they bamboozled county officials responsible for clearing area streets a reasonably timely fashion.

Responding to the storm of citizen complaints about the local government's poor handling of snow removal last March, the administration of County Executive Roger Hayden devised a plan that combined county snow trucks and those of the school department into one fleet of about 150. Also, private contractors were hired to help clean 11 local main roads. Despite this new strategy, many important county thoroughfares, including some in the county seat of Towson, were more suited to skating than driving as late as last Friday. By contrast, roads in nearby jurisdictions were in markedly better shape, from Anne Arundel to Carroll counties and even to Baltimore City.

Now Baltimore County Council members -- and not just those gunning for Mr. Hayden's job -- hint that another snow plan might be needed. Officials can draw up as many plans as they want, but the fact remains that Hayden budget cuts have removed dozens of valuable workers from the public works and highway departments, including supervisors who oversaw snow removal.

Indeed, the county's performance during last week's big chill raised doubts about those in charge and their aptitude for this task. Blame the weather for some of the treacherous conditions. However, the blame for the shortages of three key things -- salt, space to store the proper amounts of salt, and the chemical additive that would have kept diesel trucks from breaking down -- belongs to administration officials who are either unwilling or unable to prepare adequately for such emergencies.

The Hayden administration takes pride, and rightly so at times, in eliminating or privatizing certain county services. Yet keeping roads passable, even during winter's nastiest spells, is one of the primary roles of a government. For the second time in 10 months, the county government fumbled a cold-weather crisis. The lesson is that some services just can't be done on the cheap, especially one as crucial as snow removal.

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