Snowfall strains state, local budgets

Plowing, salting area roads eat up much of storm funds

  • Cars covered with snow from the sky and snow plows line the 3800 block of Falls Road, where Patrick Ito works to clear the sidewalk in front of McCabeÂ’s restaurant.
Cars covered with snow from the sky and snow plows line the 3800… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
December 22, 2009|By Larry Carson |

The weekend's record-breaking snowfall is putting a big dent in already strained area government budgets, with some counties spending more than half of what they had initially allocated for storm emergencies.

While the state is still tallying the costs of dealing with the early winter storm, Baltimore City and area counties estimate that they spent more than $6.7 million through Sunday to plow and salt streets and pay employees overtime for working the weekend.

"It's just so tough," said Howard County highways chief Bill Malone. "There's just so much snow."

State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said it's still too early to say how much of the $26 million in state funds budgeted for storm emergencies will remain by week's end, when another, lighter storm is expected. The state had already spent $7 million on earlier storms, partly to clear western Maryland's more frequent snows.

"We're working with FEMA," Buck said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to see if the state's declaration of an emergency and the record-setting snow totals qualify state and local governments for federal financial help.

Buck said the state had as much equipment out on the streets as it could find or hire.

"We were fully maxed out," Buck said about the snow-clearing efforts. The state used 900 workers and 800 pieces of equipment, including numerous private contractors, to clear and salt the state's highways.

Local Baltimore area governments also are hoping to get some federal help. While officials said the big snowfall didn't exhaust their storm-clearing funds, the bad news, of course, is that winter just began Monday.

"It can't snow any more this year," joked Lorraine Costello, Harford County's director of administration.

Meanwhile, officials in the Baltimore metropolitan area report their plows reached most residential streets on Sunday, with the last ones getting plowed on Monday. Operations at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport returned to near normal Monday after a difficult weekend. There was heavy pre-Christmas traffic but no major problems with delayed flights or stranded passengers, BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

A U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman said about 20 percent of mail couldn't be delivered in Baltimore city and county on Saturday, but most of that made it to their destinations on Monday.

Residents can help the mail carriers get to their homes by clearing the sidewalks and walkways in front of their homes, said Yvette B. Singh, spokeswoman for the Baltimore region.

Baltimore lifted some travel and parking restrictions Monday, but city transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said citizens are urged not to shovel snow back into the street when digging out their vehicles. That creates early morning ice, and Barnes said the city's 311 center has received "enormous numbers of calls" about slippery conditions.

"This is a team effort," Barnes said, and the city's narrow streets and parked cars made clearing more than a foot of snow difficult.

Through midnight Sunday, the storm cost the city $957,000 of a $3.5 million storm budget, she said.

Other jurisdictions reported digging even deeper into their budgets. In Baltimore County, officials figure that clearing the county's 2,666 miles of local roads will cost $3.5 million of its $6 million storm fund, according to spokesman David Fidler.

In Howard County, officials guessed more than half the $840,000 set aside for emergencies will go toward dealing with this one storm, especially since it hit on a weekend and required long hours of overtime pay.

"We've got a contingency budget of about $1.5 million," County Executive Ken Ulman said. "It's already a foregone conclusion we'll have to dip into that."

The storm cost Anne Arundel's coffers more than $1 million, officials said, though County Executive John R. Leopold said he's got $20 million in a contingency fund available for storms and other emergencies.

In Harford County, the snow will eat up nearly $500,000 of the $903,560 in the budget, though there is a small contingency fund of $200,000, Costello said.

Carroll County workers finished clearing the streets of its 21-inch snowfall by Sunday night, an effort that could cost the county an estimated $340,000 through Sunday. "It's not going to be a budget buster," said Benton Watson, chief of the Bureau of Roads for Carroll County. Budget director Ted Zaleski said Carroll has about $1.8 million set aside for storms.

Officials say residents generally understood that responders worked as quickly as possible considering the immense task they faced. Leopold said county workers fielded about 500 calls Sunday, mostly from people wondering when a plow would appear at their house.

"I'm proud of the response of these workers," he said.

Another classic complaint over the weekend was that a plow had pushed snow onto a laboriously hand-shoveled driveway.

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