To One Man, Spring Brings No Smiles


March 27, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Temperatures topped 80 degrees by the middle of last week, and the clear sky and crisp air seemed to promise that winter was at last making its long-overdue curtain call.

Still, Jim Irwin, Howard County's public works director, was not so certain. Hunkered down as if a temporary cease-fire had been called between two trigger-happy enemies, Mr. Irwin wasn't letting down his guard.

After being pummeled for weeks by an unforgiving spate of ice and snow storms, Howard County, if not much of the East Coast, was just coming out of its paralysis.

But old-timers in public works were talking about the March weekend more than 15 years ago, when an unexpected storm dumped an avalanche on the county and kept residents from church on Easter Sunday. Besides that, while signs of spring were making their appearance here, it was snowing in the Rockies last week.

"It will probably be rain by the time it gets here," said Mr. Irwin, in a voice as overcast as a gray day, "but you never know."

In the world of public works, weather is not only unpredictable, it makes the job of maintaining the county's infrastructure a nerve-rattling experience. Having quickly exhausted its yearly allotment of $170,000 for snow removal months ago, the county ran up an additional tally of $900,000 as road crews worked around the clock, barely digging out of one storm before another hit.

The bulldozers are idle now, but winter's legacy has left new hurdles. Potholes, cracked pavement and long-delayed resurfacing projects loom in the coming months.

Mr. Irwin is predicting the county will spend close to $200,000 filling potholes and cracks this year, not to mention sweeping away the massive amounts of sand and cinders that were spread during the winter months. The department is waiting until we've experienced at least a couple of weeks in the 70-degree range. The actual repair work is expected to take about two months.

In the meantime, Mr. Irwin says, his department is fielding complaints about today's road conditions and leftover fights about snow. A Defense Department official called to snarl about the slow pace of snow removal around several defense industry complexes in the county last month. As part of federally supported facilities, he felt, the lots should have been given top priority by the county.

That's better, at least, than the incredible request Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker got from a resident who insisted that the county plow his driveway. Mr. Ecker said no.

Conflict resolution is just another kind of snow shovel in public works. The department will need all its diplomatic skills in the coming months as the county debates how it will pay for road repairs that have been put off because of recent lean years in Howard government. Mr. Irwin estimates that the county has a backlog of repairs going back as far as four years that will take about $6 million to dig out of.

The question is, does the county pay for the repairs out of its general fund, or float bonds to cover the costs? Pay-as-you-go is attractive -- so long as funds are plentiful and the demands are limited. Never, it seems, do both situations exist at once.

Previous County Councils have balked at the idea of going into debt to repair roads. The current council has yet to take up the issue.

The effect on the county's bond rating is always a concern; the county is already stretching to the limit, with new school construction costs in the offing. And being forced to choose between a brand new school and a newly refurbished road is not a choice politicians like to be confronted with. The potential for winning Brownie points is about nil.

The existing infrastructure demands upkeep, which demands funding, which forces the county to look for new revenue sources, which causes the county to grow even larger, which demands more infrastructure.

There is probably no way off this treadmill, at least not until the county simply runs out of space to develop. Then we will enter the period of intense self-cannibalism, when the easiest way to stay on top of needs such as road repair will be to raise taxes.

Even then, the county will thrust forward along a predictable path. The only thing that won't be certain is what we have never been able to predict with precision: the weather.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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