Last winter's sparse snowfall brings greener spring budgets

Area governments enjoy unspent funds

March 28, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With bright yellow crocuses, daffodils and white tree blossoms heralding spring, the memory of a warm winter's scant snow and ice is fading quickly - except in the hearts of government budget officers.

Snow surpluses are blossoming in hard-pressed government treasuries all over Maryland, from the $6 million left in State Highway Administration accounts to Howard County's $150,000 cushion.

And although a late snow is possible in far Western Maryland, state highways spokeswoman Frances Ward said the $15 million spent this year is a far cry from the ferocious winter of 1995-1996, when the state spent $58 million to remove a record 62.5 inches of snow from highways.

FOR THE RECORD - A report on lower snow-clearing expenses this winter contained an incorrect amount for road salt used by the State Highway Administration. The state had a storage capacity of 246,000 tons of salt and used 95,000 tons during the winter. The Sun regrets the error.

Spurred by a blizzard that dropped 2 feet of snow on the Northeast on Jan. 7 and 8, 1996, state trucks dropped more than 400,000 tons of salt during the season. Local governments scurried to the federal government for financial aid.

This winter, the state used 246,000 tons of salt.

Winter precipitation can be a trial - such as the icy morning of Jan. 9 that sent dozens of vehicles crashing into one another - but it is also a necessity.

"Of course, I'd rather have more moisture, but coming in the form of rain," said Andrew Daneker, Howard County's highway's chief, referring to the drought.

But in a year when his county is facing an $18 million budget shortfall, Raymond S. Wacks, Howard's budget director, said the leftover funding is "a help." While that money might seem minuscule in an $800 million budget, the county typically underfunds the account, and then transfers money from a $1 million contingency fund if needed. This year, it wasn't needed.

Baltimore's transportation department has $714,000 - about half its snow removal budget - left for repairing equipment and installing automatic vehicle locator devices on more city dump trucks, said spokeswoman Adriene Barnes.

Baltimore County has $1 million left, highways chief Tim Burgess said. Because so little snow fell, highway crews "were grumbling a little bit" about the lack of overtime, but it was somewhat "tongue in cheek," he said.

John R. Hammond, Anne Arundel County's budget director, said that county spent much less for snow removal than in a typical year, when costs would be about $1.5 million. Pam Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, said Anne Arundel spent $482,000, compared with $1 million the previous winter. Harford County has $514,000 in snow removal money left. Carroll County has $235,000.

Howard County had prepared for last winter by inaugurating a computer tracking system for snowplows that is sophisticated enough to allow county residents to check the condition of each road and the location of each plow via personal computer.

Despite the mild winter, commuter-friendly highways demand salt for even the slightest frozen moisture.

Harford County dumped 6,000 tons on the roads, about double the 3,063 tons Anne Arundel County used. Baltimore spread 9,700 tons, while Baltimore County used 24,100 tons. Howard County used 5,000 tons, and Carroll County used 2,500 tons.

But only Jan. 9's ice and Jan. 19's 4 inches of snow are likely to stick in anyone's consciousness in Howard County, though Daneker said highway crews also were active Jan. 6 and Feb. 7, when small amounts of snow fell.

If it doesn't snow in April, this will become the third-skimpiest snow season in 131 years of record-keeping in Baltimore. Only 2.3 inches has fallen in the city, all Jan. 19.

Only the winters of 1949-1950 (0.7 of an inch) and 1972-1973 (1.2 inches) produced less, according to the National Weather Service. The snowiest season was 1995-1996, with its 62.5 inches. The average is 18.

It can snow here in April. The "April Fools Day Storm" in 1924 dropped 9.5 inches on Baltimore.

Sun staff writer Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

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