For next time, let's have a Snow Fund

January 21, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

IT TOOK A blizzard to make folks realize government can be important in their daily lives. The failure of our leaders to deal with 30 inches-plus of snow exposed serious flaws in the way local governments deliver services to us.

It was worst in the city. Even major routes were left only partially open. A stunning number of neighborhoods were ignored for days. A week later, hundreds of roads remained barely passable. Sidewalks? Forget it. As hard as city employees worked, they didn't have the equipment or the manpower to succeed.

The same held true in the counties. Baltimore County executive Dutch Ruppersberger handled the snow better than poor Roger Hayden, but his crews still lacked heavy equipment and the personnel to cover all communities. John Gary needed only to walk out of the Arundel Center to see how Annapolis botched things; North County neighborhoods looked like a county truck had once visited the area and then forgotten them. Howard County left thousands of workers homebound all week for lack of plowed side streets.

Only the state had its act together. In Baltimore County, for instance, you could always tell where county-maintained roads ended and state-maintained roads began. The state roads were the ones that were fully open, where prompt cleanup meant dry surface from shoulder to shoulder.

Why did the state outshine the city and counties? One reason is money. The state has deeper resources and has invested in sophisticated equipment. It also seems to have a better game plan.

It could be that state officials are more sensitive to the financial devastation of a shutdown. One economist put the blizzard's cost at $1 billion. But it will go higher because local governments failed to minimize the economic losses in the days following the storm.

By last week, this region should have been snow-free. There was no excuse for the narrow roadways on Tuesday after the Monday holiday. But government dropped the ball. No wonder people are angry.

Sunshine policy

One reason for the poor local performance relates to the public clamor for smaller bureaucracies. Too many folks think that doing away with as much government as possible is the path to nirvana. So local leaders have laid off employees, eliminated services and cut money and manpower for snow removal. That pleased folks while the sun was shining, but once the snow fell, these same constituents expected immediate government JTC response as though there had never been any downsizing.

Emergencies sometimes give people a chance to reassess. Take a letter to the editor last week from Walter Boyd, a conservative Republican who has been known to castigate big-spending, tax-happy governments when running for political office. Mr. Boyd was so enraged by the snow stoppage that he suggested a 5-cent surcharge on the gas tax as an equitable way to raise enough money to give governments all the equipment and manpower they need to keep roads open and clear.

For once, Mr. Boyd and I agree. The city and counties should set up a dedicated Snow Fund. His idea is to raise the gas tax; I prefer the property tax. I would impose a 10-cent surcharge on the property-tax rate this summer for the Snow Fund. This would raise $10 million in some counties.

Then governments could buy lots of new snow-clearing equipment. They would have the money to sign up private contractors to clear specific neighborhoods whenever snowfall exceeds a certain level. Local governments could also work with neighborhood associations and apartment owners on cost-sharing plans so special needs are met promptly.

Each year, local government would replenish the Snow Fund through a new surcharge. After a mild winter, that might mean only a penny or so in higher property taxes. But the money would always be there to get roads fully open and there would be enough manpower to attack all those side streets and sidewalks.

Would people support this surtax? Right now they would. On a $200,000 house, the fee would amount to $80 in the first year, as little as $8 or $16 in a good year. Heck, community association dues are higher than that. So are the special taxes some communities impose on themselves.

Government has a responsibility to keep the local economy humming. In a region that is heavily dependent on car travel, that means attacking roadways -- all roads -- during snowfalls with military precision. Like the military, government shouldn't worry about the cost: just get the job done.

We can't afford another shutdown because our leaders weren't prepared. Those ''hundred-year storms'' can happen any time.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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