Blanket of white pushes some budgets into the red

State and several local governments' storm coffers are past empty

February 14, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

The millions of dollars spent to move the weekend's record snowfall pushed several area government storm budgets into the red, but Sunday's snow had its benefits.

"A weekend storm is wholly positive in terms of clearing it, but it's absolutely more expensive because it's all overtime," said State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck.

Light Sunday traffic, a bright sun and warming daytime temperatures helped plows get to dry pavement quickly, officials said, though falling trees and branches, especially in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, complicated cleanup efforts.

The state spent $8 million to $10 million on the storm, Buck said, enough to put Maryland's $21 million annual snow-clearing budget well into the red. Buck said the state had spent its full storm budget before this latest snow, largely on snowfalls in Western Maryland.

"We had 25 storms in Western Maryland, with 90 inches of snow," he said.

The fiscal story was similar for local governments, though elected officials are often less worried about the money than about public safety and not annoying voters in an election year.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said that cleaning snow is not just about the money. The roads were cleared quickly, and, most important, he said, "There were relatively few accidents."

Smith said Baltimore County spent about $2 million of its $5 million storm emergency budget on the storm. The county had spent $2.3 million before the weekend snowfall, leaving about $1 million for the rest of winter.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said the city spent $827,000 on cleanup over the weekend, as well as $1 million on December's storms. That leaves about $1.6 million in the city's $3.4 million yearly storm budget. Crews appeared to finish their work in time to avoid more costly overtime for yesterday's municipal holiday marking Lincoln's birthday, a spokeswoman said.

Others agreed with Smith on storm priorities.

"It's best for everybody to have things easier to clean. The citizens get a better job, and there are less accidents," said Bill Malone, Howard County's highways chief.

And the people who drive the trucks are not complaining either, despite the tedious, sleepless hours on the roads.

"They love the overtime," said Dale R. Chase, president of Local 3085, Howard County's chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO.

Governments often deliberately underfund storm accounts, knowing that surplus money can be added later if needed.

Howard County budgeted $500,000 for winter storms and was $200,000 in the hole before the latest storm hit. Weekend snow clearance will cost about $200,000 more, said James M. Irvin, the county's public works chief.

Harford, like Howard, has about 1,000 miles of county roads. But Harford budgeted $1.66 million for storms, said Kenny Gemmill, the highway superintendent. Harford spent about $400,000 on this storm, he said, leaving a bit more than that amount unspent.

Anne Arundel County budgets nothing for snow removal except $300,000 to fill salt domes and hire contractors, said spokeswoman Pam Jordan. Whatever snow clearance costs comes from another contingency fund.

"We never budget for events that may not happen," she said. The county had spent $1.25 million before the latest storm, and it added $750,000 to the bill over the weekend.

"We got hit so hard here with the trees. It was like being hit with a tropical storm," Jordan said.

Carroll County budgeted $1.1 million for storms and had spent nearly half that before the weekend storm, which cost another $250,000, said Ted Zaleski, the county's management and budget director.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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