Catering a snowstorm

Our view: While pinching pennies, city might look at its food bill

May 16, 2010

The bills are in for snow removal and related services during the record February snowstorms, and Baltimore has some whoppers to pay. Most of the $36 million tab goes to what one might expect — overtime and extra help from contractors — but here's one we didn't see coming: more than $230,000 in catering costs.

That may represent a small part of the overall bill, but for those prices, one usually gets a posh wedding reception with crabcakes, champagne and a Charm City cake. City officials say their reality was more like box lunches handed out to workers during the peak days of the blizzard. The largest chunk ($172,000) went to The Classic Catering People, an Owings Mills firm known to handle high-end corporate events.

Is this just the typical cost of doing business? In Baltimore County, the bill for food during the February storms comes to about $82,000 for 481 public works employees working extra-long shifts. Most of it was paid in $7 stipends that qualified workers could use to buy meals themselves, as required by the county's collective bargaining agreement.

The Maryland State Highway Administration spent $58.8 million on snow removal but just $200,000 to feed its 3,000 workers across the state during the disaster.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says Baltimore had far more streets to clear and more emergency service workers, including firefighters and police, to feed than its suburban neighbors. He also points out that Baltimore is likely to be reimbursed for three-quarters of its snow-related expenses by the federal government.

Perhaps, but one has to wonder if there isn't a cheaper way to feed them than hiring suburban catering firms. And just because Uncle Sam is helping pay the bill doesn't make it a free lunch — only the responsibility of a bigger group of taxpayers.

We don't begrudge the city taking care of its snow plow jockeys. It's probably much cheaper to keep them fed and on the job than left to scrounge for food in the middle of a snowstorm. The faster streets are cleared, the quicker Baltimoreans can get to work and employers back to business.

But if Baltimore must pinch pennies to get its budget balanced this year, we'd much rather see it go to cheaper food than cutbacks that leave fewer cops on the streets and prosecutors on the job, or cause fire stations to be closed and pot holes neglected.

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