Snow removal expenses plow through budgets

SHA, area jurisdictions exceed funding by millions

April 24, 2005|By Michael Hoffman | Michael Hoffman,SUN STAFF

Despite a normal snowfall this winter, the State Highway Administration and Baltimore area jurisdictions overspent their snow removal budgets by more than $30 million, double what they had planned.

In the city -- which received 18 inches of snow this winter, or one-tenth of an inch below what the National Weather Service says is Baltimore's average -- $3.2 million was spent to clear the city streets, after only $1.5 million was budgeted.

"It's really a crapshoot when you are trying to predict the weather," said Tom Driscoll, Baltimore's deputy budget director.

Baltimore County nearly tripled its snow removal budget, and the state doubled what it had planned to spend. Carroll County was the only area jurisdiction to come close to its budget, spending about $35,000 less than it had budgeted for the winter.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions reported incorrectly how Baltimore officials plan to cover overspending for snow removal last winter. The deficit will be covered with money from the Motor Vehicle Fund and increased revenue from state gas taxes, but not from the city's general fund surplus, officials said.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Snow removal spending includes such things as salt, contractors, labor, overtime and equipment repair.

Although exceeding snow removal budgets is not a rare occurrence, according to state and local officials, this is the first time in years when excessive spending has been required after a relatively normal snowfall without any major blizzards -- or, in the case of the 2003-2004 season, a hurricane.

Some counties place their snow removal budgets in general weather emergency funds, which took a major hit during Tropical Storm Isabel cleanup.

"We always go over the budget," said Pam Jordan, spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County's department of public works. "We know we're going to. That budget is more to make sure we can retain supplies and get contractors."

This past year, the city, state and counties budgeted $27.3 million but ended up spending about $60 million. Most of this spending comes from the state, which budgeted $21 million and spent $44 million.

Even though the snow removal budget runs out quickly each winter, officials said there is little to worry about because funds are subtracted from the operating budget each year to cover costs.

Each year, Driscoll said, the city anticipates the request for more funding.

"We put in supplemental costs as we need them," said Victoria Goodman, a spokeswoman for Howard County. "We would prefer not to tie that money up in the general fund if we don't have to."

Transportation officials say they don't have to worry about not getting the funding because it's a public safety issue, not a construction project, said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.

"You err on the side of being under," he said.

For example, Baltimore County officials refer to their budget as seed money, which covers the initial purchase of salt and lining up contractors for the season to clear snow.

For many years, Carroll County subscribed to the same theory, but -- after years of exceeding the budget -- the county increased the funding and will not have to ask for supplemental aid this year.

"Because we were routinely overspending, they upped the budget by a couple hundred thousand," said Benton Watson, spokesman for the Carroll County bureau of roads operations.

Next year, Baltimore will follow Carroll County with plans to boost its snow removal budget by $2 million to $3.5 million in fiscal 2006, said Driscoll, the city's deputy budget director.

The city's $37.5 million surplus is helping cover Baltimore's current year deficit, Driscoll said. Other funding will come from the Motor Vehicle Fund and the increased revenue from state gas taxes, he said.

Other counties such as Howard are proposing a slight boost in their snow removal budgets for next winter, but plans are still tentative.

Regardless of the average snow accumulation this winter, transportation officials said other factors went into driving up snow removal costs -- particularly the rising costs of salt and gasoline.

The fact that several storms this winter occurred over weekends drove up costs by forcing employees to be paid overtime for Saturday and Sunday work, officials said.

Buck also blamed botched forecasts for the increased spending. Four times this winter, salt trucks were sent out in preparation for a major storm, but the snow predicted by the National Weather Service never materialized, and transportation officials were left with the bill, he said.

"Often crews sit waiting for the snow when they wouldn't have to," said David Fidler, spokesman for Baltimore County.

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