Winter certainly isn't over, and these parts have seen some pretty impressive winter storms in March, and on occasion in April, even as the National Weather Service forecast indicates it'll be at least March before low temperatures are solidly below freezing — if a cold snap ever materializes.
At the risk of tempting fate, it looks like the money set aside for snow removal by Harford County and its three municipalities will not all be needed. Even if there is a big snow storm before the end of the season, the cost of dealing with the effects of winter weather on local roadways isn't likely to be comparable to what has been the case in the previous few winters
Such is the weather in these parts. Some years, the conditions are such that cold air from northern Canada collides with wet air from the Gulf of Mexico right in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region. Other years, the cold air moves so far south that the ground is as hard as concrete for weeks, but there's relatively little snow. And in years like this one, the winter weather is mild.
What's the average? Well, that would be if you add the years together and divide by the number of years. Possibly, the better way to predict an average weather year in these parts is to use the example of tropical storm years, as compared to non-tropical storm years. This past fall, we got nailed by two very wet tropical storms, which dropped an amount of rain that put the region well in excess of the average year's rainfall amount of 40 inches. In other recent years, however, we have seen substantially less than 40 inches of rain. Over time, if you add up rainfall in tropical storm years and drought years, you come out to an average of 40 inches – though we rarely get that exact amount because it's either drought or deluge.
Similarly, there's not really an average winter for Maryland, but over a span of several years, statistically speaking, it is probably pretty easy to come up with a solid guess as to the number of snowstorms there will be. The problem is predicting which years will bring snow and how much?
Which brings us to the public policy question of the day: What's the best way to budget so the government is prepared to deal with bad weather? Often, local officials will characterize money held in reserve from year-to-year as a rainy day fund, but strangely when bad weather rolls around, they're loathe to pull money from that fund (though sometimes they do exactly that).
More typically, a reasonable estimate is made as to what snow removal will cost, and the money is in turn put in the budget. If it goes over, or if there is some other weather disaster, often there will be applications made to state and federal agencies for disaster relief or some other sort of assistance program from on high.
In years when the weather is mild, however, any money budgeted for snow removal that isn't used will be viewed as something of a bonus, and is likely to end up being redirected elsewhere. Similarly, when it's cold and heating bills for government buildings are through the roof, there's something of a crisis, but in mild years when heating costs are lower than expected, there will be little discussion of what to do with the extra money. Some of it ends up being used to cover expenses that were higher than expected. Certainly, some of it ends up in the unreserved fund balances. None of it ever ends up being sent back to reimburse disaster relief funds.
While it is reasonable to rely on the federal government to step in with financial help when disasters strike, might it be better for more predictable, and quite honestly routine, disasters like heavy snows and tropical cyclone rains to be handled in a more orderly way? Rather than petitioning the federal government for disaster relief on a case-by-case basis, state and local governments could establish a true rainy-day fund that estimates disaster relief needs over the long haul and charges participants yearly based on what those long term costs are. This is exactly what insurance companies do, though on a different scale and for different reasons.
Wouldn't it be a reasonable public policy for Harford County to pay, for example, the roughly $800,000 it expected to spend on salt into a fund each year, and then end up pulling that amount out on average over a span of 10 or 15 years, rather than having to go searching for extra money when the storms let loose their worst on the area?
It's something to think about as winter fades into spring, and a new governmental season approaches: Budget season.