Snow will be plowed, despite budget cuts, officials say Public works agency asked to trim spending

November 17, 1995|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Department of Public Works vowed this week to plow snow at its normal rate this winter, despite looming budget cuts and an early season snowfall that already has dipped into the department's overtime funds.

"There are certain things that we have to do," said Jo Ann Davis, the agency's director of administrative services.

The department has budgeted $280,770 for snow removal for the fiscal year that ends June 30, she said. But in the nasty winter of VTC 1993-1994 -- when public works spent $655,000 for snow removal -- the department had to ask the County Council for extra money.

Ms. Davis is confident the council would come up with the extra money, as it did two years ago, but she acknowledged that county funds are tighter these days.

That was illustrated last week when County Executive Charles I. Ecker told all his departments to cut their budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Public works was asked to make the deepest cut -- $4 million or 9.5 percent -- from its $41.8 million budget.

No other department was asked to cut more than 5.6 percent next fiscal year.

The public works cut appears steeper than Mr. Ecker proposed in his countywide austerity plan unveiled two months ago. Under that plan, he said he intended to cut 12 percent over two fiscal years -- about 6 percent a year.

Public works is the second largest agency, behind public safety, agency that Mr. Ecker does not want to cut sharply, if at all. "It's a real challenge," public works Director Jim Irvin said Tuesday.

The county executive expects department heads to tell him how they will deliver the same services for less money. "If there are [proposed] cuts in services, I may send them back," Mr. Ecker said Tuesday.

Snow removal is a service no one wants to cut. What it will cost this year depends on nature -- about which predictions vary widely.

Ed O'Lenic, head of operations for the national Climate Prediction Center in Camp Srings, predicts almost normal precipitation in Baltimore, which means about 22 inches.

The venerable Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, which accurately predicted the snowy, icy winter of 1993-1994, predicts 45 inches of snow.

Ms. Davis said public works is operating more efficiently than in years past. The 9.5 percent cut will push its funding back to levels of 1988, when, she said, Howard County had:

* 690 miles of roads, compared with 860 miles of roads today.

* 154 storm water ponds and management facilities, compared with 230 today.

* 74 bridges to maintain, compared with 101 today.

Davis said she hopes to save money by consolidating some divisions. And the department will freeze hiring. But with only 18 vacancies, that's a savings of only $451,000, Ms. Davis said.

She said deeper staff cuts may be the only answer. "In the long run it's really going to be people," Ms. Davis said.

The need to cut county spending was underscored Monday at a Howard County Council meeting, when County Auditor Ronald Weinstein revealed that Howard's revenue exceeded expenditures by less than in the past.

He said that the county's excess of revenue over expenditures dropped from $8 million in fiscal 1993 to $6 million in fiscal 1994 and to $321,876 in fiscal 1995.

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