Despite Budget Woes, Snowfalls, Officials Plow Ahead

February 04, 2010|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

The Chicken Little of legend panicked at the thought the sky was falling, but Baltimore-area officials used to nature's vagaries aren't flinching despite this winter's onslaught of snowflakes hitting their heads, roads, parking lots and civic treasuries.

Quickly plowing streets is so universally in demand that the policy bridges the political divide between liberal Democrat-dominated Baltimore City and conservative Republican Carroll County, looming budget shortfalls notwithstanding.

"We're not too much worried about the [predicted weekend] storm because we will find funds to make the roads safe," said Adrienne Barnes, Baltimore's spokeswoman on the subject. The city has $400,000 left in what was once a $3.5 million snow-removal fund, she said.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions about the cost of snow removal provided incorrect figures for Harford County. The county budgeted $1.3 million for storm emergencies and has spent $1,050,000. The Sun regrets the errors.

"Snow removal is such a visible service and expectations are high," said Ted Zaleski, Carroll County's budget director. "I think it would be hard to change practices" to save money.

Many governments budget less money than they expect to use for winter storms to keep from parking large unused sums, knowing the storm emergency fund can be replenished later.

"Our snow-removal budget is nothing but a place-holder," said Don Mohler, spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. This year, the county budgeted $6 million and had spent $7 million before Wednesday's storm, he said. "We're doing this little anti-snow dance" to ward off the predicted weekend storm, he said jokingly.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said he's "keeping his fingers crossed" the next storm won't be big, though the county doesn't keep a separate storm emergency account in the budget. Anne Arundel has spent $3.5 million so far out of a total $20 million contingency fund, Leopold said. He's not considering any cost-cutting when it comes to snow, he said, no matter how dire the county's fiscal straits.

"Snow clearance is a top priority," he said.

Before Jan. 30, Central Maryland saw 27 inches of snow fall, said State Highway Administration spokeswoman Valerie Burnett Edgar, compared with just six inches all of last winter. Since fiscal 1999, the state spent a low of $20.2 million in fiscal 2002, compared to a peak of $73.4 million the very next year.

This year, the state had $26 million to begin the winter, but had already spent $46 million before Tuesday night's snow, Edgar said. "We always go over. We've always kept [the budget] modest," she said.

The storm Saturday cost the state about $8 million, Edgar said, so predictions of another storm this weekend could add as much or more to the state's looming $2 billion budget hole.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley told a state Senate budget committee Wednesday that if expenses top $60 million this winter, "we're going to have to make some other choices in our budget priorities." Those might include diverting funds from capital projects, she said.

But each year is different. Some savings can be had by delaying salt replenishment once spring arrives, by doing less highway grass-cutting or postponing work on signs that are not related to safety.

Howard County is about $1.3 million in the red on snow removal, according to public works director James M. Irvin, who said Wednesday he'll be requesting County Council approval of a transfer of funds from contingency accounts in March or April.

"It's another slug of money we're going to have to find," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who returned Wednesday from his annual trip to explain the county's fiscal situation to New York's three bond rating houses.

Harford County spends about $8,000 an hour to clear snow on weekends because of overtime, said Hudson Myers, deputy public works director. This winter, the county budgeted $3.2 million and has spent $4 million. That hurts more this year, he said, since like every other local government, Harford lost almost all the state highway aid approved for fiscal 2010 last spring.

"We're $10 million down," he said, though no one is suggesting slacking off on snow removal.

"The bottom line is we've got to keep doing it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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