County fund to cover cleanup

Municipalities need help to pay for snow removal

Carroll County

February 20, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll commissioners don't know how badly last weekend's snowstorm will overwhelm the county's snow-removal budget, but the county's budget director said yesterday that emergency funds should be able to cover the cost without wreaking financial havoc.

But the county's eight municipalities - many with total budgets of a few million dollars - have less wiggle room, and several plan to seek relief from state and federal coffers.

The county had spent about 80 percent of its $780,000 snow-removal budget before the storm, said budget director Ted Zaleski. With the snow cleanup expected to cost about $750,000, the county probably will exceed that budget by at least $600,000, Zaleski said.

But the commissioners haven't had to reach deep into Carroll's $3 million contingency fund this year, so snow costs can be absorbed, Zaleski said.

"It's not a situation where we have to say, `Oh no, how are we going to pay for that,'" he added.

Zaleski said snow costs would be among the many small strains that will make it more difficult than usual for him to balance the county budget in the spring.

The commissioners said from the beginning that they wanted county crews to clear all of the snow and would worry about the cost later.

"The most important thing is that we get through without any injuries," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said Monday morning. "The money, we'll figure out afterward. That's why we have a contingency fund."

The county kept 49 trucks and 150 workers in almost constant rotation between Sunday morning and Tuesday evening, with occasional four- and six-hour naps to keep employees rested. The county also rented more than 20 pieces of heavy machinery, such as front loaders and backhoes, from local contractors.

The combination of overtime pay and rent for extra equipment is always a budget buster during major storms, said Benton Watson, chief of Carroll's Bureau of Roads.

Watson has worked for the county for more than 30 years. He said the snowfall was the largest he has seen, although he said the storm was less challenging than the blizzard of 1996 because winds stayed calm. Watson said most county roads were at least passable by Tuesday evening, although he said county crews would be chipping away at snow all week.

Like the commissioners, the county's municipal leaders ignored potential costs during the cleanup Monday.

"What budget?" Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin said Monday when asked about snow removal costs. "This is going to kill our budget, sure, but we just have to do what's necessary and figure it out later."

But by Tuesday afternoon, many had begun contemplating the harsh hits their small budgets would be taking.

Westminster soared past its $125,000 budget for snow and ice removal months before the storm, said Thomas B. Beyard, director of the city's planning and public works department.

Beyard says he hopes the city, which was clearing snow from side streets yesterday, can be reimbursed in part for its expenses during this storm. Beyard noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a possible source for reimbursement. Maryland cities and towns are eligible to apply for federal money because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared a state of emergency during the storm.

Although he could not provide numbers yesterday, New Windsor Mayor Sam Pierce summed up the effect of the snow on his town's budget in one word - "terrible."

"Our guys worked 36 hours to start with and have been clearing every day since," he said. "We will just have to adjust."

But Pierce said he did not anticipate asking for federal funds.

Hampstead Town Manger Ken Decker said he probably won't know how much the storm cost until the end of the week but said a few smaller projects might have to be postponed so the town's budget can be balanced.

"The bill's gonna come, and just like in real life, you have to find a way to pay it," Decker said. Federal money might help mitigate the cost as it did in 1996, he added, though he deemed that prospect uncertain.

Sykesville's roads are in good shape and downtown businesses have reopened but "our budget got killed," said Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "We are no different from everyone else. Everyone is taking a hit with the costs of this winter."

Matthew H. Candland, Sykesville's town manager, said the town exceeded its $10,000 snow removal budget before the latest storm.

If federal aid is available, Sykesville would be among the first to apply, he said. But that money "usually takes a while to get to us," Candland said.

Sun staff writers Athima Chansanchai and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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