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Snow costs break the banks of Carroll and its town and city governments

Despite winter nearing its end, Carroll and its municipalities may be reeling for some time from the costs associated with the snow, ice and frigid temperatures this winter.

The county and all but one of its eight municipalities have either exceeded or expect to exceed what they budgeted for snow removal, salt and road crew overtime hours.

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Though this winter seemed mild compared with the year before, during which the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared a state of emergency in Carroll, the combined efforts of Jack Frost and Old Man Winter resulted in more ice-related events this year than last, said Deborah Effingham, chief of the county's Bureau of Budget.

Though these events don't always result in snow accumulation, jurisdictions must still respond, costing them in resources and man hours.

The county budgeted $1.9 million in the current fiscal year and had already spent $81,000 beyond that mark by Feb. 11, Effingham said. Since then, there have been five more winter weather events, including snowfall on Valentine's Day, the Feb. 21 storm that blanketed the county and snowfall on Wednesday, which will push the county even further over budget, she said.

Effingham couldn't say how much these past five snowfalls will amount to in cost, but it will most likely not exceed expenditures from last winter. In fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, the county had budgeted somewhere between $1.8 million and $1.9 million for snow removal, salt and overtime hours but spent $2.6 million, she said.

In events related to state of emergency declarations, FEMA can reimburse local jurisdictions for a portion of their expenditures. Last year, $411,000 of Carroll's expenditures relating to the winter weather was federally reimbursed, she said.

Any spending on snow removal, salt and overtime hours that exceeds what the budget calls for will be covered by the county's reserve contingencies, Effingham said, and this is one of the reserve's most important functions. The county typically allocates 1 percent of its total revenue for its reserve contingencies, she said, which for fiscal year 2015 amounted to about $3.4 million.

Municipal costs again over budget

Unlike the county government, the majority of Carroll's municipalities do not have the reserve funds necessary to pay for the costs of severe winters.

This year's snow and ice have arguably been a greater burden on Carroll's municipalities than on the county. All of them, with the exception of Union Bridge and Mount Airy, have either already exceeded their budgeted funding or expect to enter into the red before the winter season officially ends March 20.

The winter was especially devastating to Taneytown. City Manager Henry Heine said the city has spent more than twice its $28,000 budget for the winter in this fiscal year to date. The $60,000 price tag is partly a result of an increase in salt prices, rising from $61 to $72 per ton for the city's purchases. With three weeks remaining until spring, the city could even meet, if not exceed, its total expenditures from last year's winter, which was $70,000, Heine said.

FEMA reimbursed Taneytown for $10,398 of its winter expenses for fiscal year 2014, he said. Because the city had only budgeted $28,000, however, this still left it $32,000 over budget.

Reimbursements from FEMA to the county and seven municipalities, not including New Windsor, totaled more than $550,000 during last year's winter. New Windsor town staff did not have this information readily available.

Linda Quinn, treasurer of Sykesville, said that because municipalities in Carroll County are mandated by the state to have a balanced budget, the town was forced to conduct a budget amendment after last year's winter.

The town had budgeted $20,000 in fiscal year 2014 for snow removal and ended up spending almost $35,000. Town staff were able to reallocate funds originally slated for other purposes to make up for the unexpected costs from last year's winter. Sykesville could have to take a similar approach this year as well.

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For this winter, Sykesville once again budgeted $20,000, and as of Feb. 23, the town had nearly reached that total.

"It would be safe to say we will be over budget this year," Quinn said.

Westminster, the largest municipality in the county, budgeted $120,000 for this year's winter, and has already surpassed that mark by almost $7,000. That spending, however, doesn't account for last weekend's storm and another snowfall on Wednesday, according to Robert Wack, Westminster's Common Council president.

But the costs could be even greater than that.

What many people don't realize, Wack said, is that the cost of snow removal, overtime hours and equipment does not take into account the wear and tear winter weather has on roads.

Every time the temperature drops below 32 degrees with precipitation, water slips into the cracks of roads, eventually expanding and causing further deterioration and potholes, Wack said.

"We'll be repairing damage to the roads from the last two winters for the next few years," he said.

Despite 2014, many didn't budget more

After last year's severe winter and a declared state of emergency, just three municipalities chose to raise their budgeted totals for snow removal this fiscal year.

Cheryl Rhine, finance administrator for Hampstead, said the town raised its budgeted total to $25,000 — a 25 percent increase from fiscal year 2014. Rhine said the town determines its initial budgeted amount by looking at past years' total expenditures. In years past, the town has not used the total amount, she said, but the mayor, Christopher Nevin — who determines the budget — chose to raise the amount to prevent what happened last winter from repeating.

Rhine said she expects the town's Department of Public Works to fight for a higher total in fiscal year 2016 as a result of the severity of the past two winters.

Westminster and Mount Airy also raised their budget totals for fiscal year 2015.

There are several reasons a municipality might have chosen not to increase winter budgets. Some municipalities might not have the revenue to raise the winter total while adequately maintaining other programs, such as road repairs, law enforcement and utility costs.

Other municipalities might have reasoned that the likelihood of another severe winter was slim. Heine said Taneytown typically prepares for a normal winter season when going through the budget process, which is why the city budgeted $28,000 in this year and last.

"Last year we thought [the winter] was an anomaly but it wasn't," he said.

Heine said the city's director of Public Works has put in a request for more revenue for next year in case the county has another severe winter.

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If the mayor grants the request and the city ends up with money left over from an uneventful winter, the remainder will go back to the general fund, Heine said.

Salt running out

Several municipalities are dealing with a dwindling salt supply because of the severity of this year's winter. Heine said another snow event like Wednesday's would effectively exhaust Taneytown's remaining supply of salt. He said the city may have to resort to laying cinder on the municipality's roads if the snow continues into March.

Cinder consists of small stones purchased from quarries that help provide traction for vehicle tires, Heine said. It is less expensive than salt but not as effective, he said.

Roberta Windham, spokeswoman for the county, said that Carroll as a whole is also dealing with a salt shortage, having used up a significant portion of what was purchased before the winter season. Carroll recently purchased an additional 1,500 tons of salt, Windham said.

Properly treating the roads in Carroll for Wednesday's snow took up 600 tons, she said.

Windham said the county determines how much salt to purchase based on past experiences, but because the weather is impossible to predict in the long term, it ends up being a guessing game.

"Heavier years like this year and the last one, with low temperatures and the weather we've had, it requires a more intensive effort," she said. "But two years ago, we used hardly any salt."

The county recently purchased more salt, but the price rose drastically for the county, just as it has for Taneytown.

Windham said when the county purchased salt last year, prices were $65.80 a ton, but Carroll now faces prices of $92.30 a ton.

Dawn Ashbacher, Sykesville town manager, said the town does not have a formal process for acquiring salt when running low. However, she said, Sykesville has been able to replenish its supply of salt and is not facing a shortage. If this were to change, depending on the type of weather, budget restraints, and availability, Sykesville might purchase cinder — as Taneytown is considering doing — or something similar, Ashbacher said.

When municipalities face a shortage of salt, Windham said the county will assist them if requested. This winter, the county has supplied 1,000 tons each to the Carroll County Public School System, the Bureau of Facilities and Taneytown; 400 tons to New Windsor; and 50 tons to Union Bridge, she said.

When the county supplies other entities with salt, it charges them the same rate Carroll initially paid for it, Windham said.

Carroll government also requested additional salt from the state and received 800 tons, she said, but she did not know whether the county would need to pay for the borrowed salt.

Though other options are available, including state and county assistance, Heine said the only way to ensure municipalities get through this winter without any added expenditures is for spring to come early.

"The only thing we can hope for now is no more snow," Heine said.

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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