Cold puts strain on budget

January 27, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County government is still racking up costs from the effects of last week's ice storm, officials say.

The ice remains so thick on some streets that the Bureau of Highways is continuing to plow and sand each night, adding to the cost of overtime and materials.

From Jan. 17 through Tuesday, the Bureau of Highways spread 2,225 tons of salt and 3,175 tons of cinders on county roadways, and put 11,116 gallons of fuel into 50 county vehicles.

During that period, employees racked up 2,332 hours of overtime. The Bureau of Highways has spent $162,500 clearing roadways, said Bureau Chief Andrew M. Daneker.

"We had the emergency people to do their job, thanks to nonemergency people" who came to work rather than take the liberal leave offered by the county, said County Administrator Raquel Sanudo.

So many other employees came to work to provide support services that she still is getting figures on the total cost of dealing with last week's icy conditions, Ms. Sanudo said.

In addition to sanding and plowing heavily traveled roads, the Bureau of Highways cleared streets and laid cinders on the ground and on walkways for police and fire personnel.

The fire service received so many calls -- an average of 107 a day compared with the usual workload of 45 to 50 -- that the department was on "code blue," which meant taking injured people to the nearest hospital rather than to the health facility of their choice.

Wednesday and Thursday were the busiest days for the fire service, with 119 calls on Wednesday and 128 on Thursday, nearly all of them weather-related, said Cmdr. Donald R. Howell, a fire service spokesman.

It took a day or so for some residents -- especially renters -- to become aware of water problems, Commander Howell said. For example, he said, pipes may have burst in a vacant apartment above and residents may not have become aware of it until water started leaking through a light socket.

The water problems caused by last week's storm were the worst in the county in 15 years, said Robert M. Beringer, chief of the Bureau of Utilities. He said the bureau had received more than 500 calls from people with frozen or broken pipes.

The actual number of residences and businesses with water problems was probably closer to 5,000, since only 10 percent of people with utility problems call county government, Mr. Beringer said.

In the last 15 years, he said, walls have settled and underground pipes have been replaced by pipes made of materials that turn brittle and break in extreme temperatures.

"We're paying for 15 years of mistakes all at once," he said.

Mr. Beringer said that officials were able to deal with the problems more quickly than in the past, in part because of changes in technology in the past 15 years, especially the cellular telephone.

Many of the Bureau of Utilities' meter service workers know the designs of county houses so well that they were able to solve some crises immediately over the phone.

The many people who called on cellular phones could be "talked through the house" to the proper shut-off valve or area where the pipes were frozen, Mr. Beringer said. The longest wait for those who could not be helped by phone was two to three hours, he said.

"I'm proud of the attitude of our workers," who put in 1,000 hours of overtime last week, Mr. Beringer said. Most calls were not related to the county government, he said.

Mr. Beringer also praised residents, whom he described as "really nice" despite the trying circumstances.

"There were no foul tempers," he said. "We were sometimes working with people with water up to their knees. How they could joke and make puns in a situation like that is beyond me. The citizens are OK."

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