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With blizzard almost behind it, Harford looks to snow expenses, future storms

Students made their way into Forest Lakes Elementary School Monday morning to begin their day after a week long break because of last week's blizzard.
Students made their way into Forest Lakes Elementary School Monday morning to begin their day after a week long break because of last week's blizzard. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Students returned to school Monday after a week off as Harford County continued to clean up from the Blizzard of 2016, with rain expected this week on top of the large amount of remaining snow.

As the post-blizzard clean-up winds down, county, municipal and public school officials have begun to look at where they stand with their snow removal budgets and their responses to the single-highest snowfall total in history, with an eye to how they might do better with future storms.

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Public and private schools were closed all five days last week, with activities the weekend of the storm and the weekend after also canceled, because of the record snowfall of Feb. 22-23 that dumped more than 30 inches on the county.

By Thursday, state roads and most county roads were passable, as were municipal streets in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace. The county lifted its snow emergency declaration shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, and temperatures moved back into the 40s on Saturday and Sunday and did not get below freezing in most places Sunday night.

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Concerns about refreezing, having passage wide enough on secondary and development streets for school buses and safe places for children to wait for their buses away from traffic were cited as reasons to keep schools closed all last week.

Harford County and State Highway Administration officials are handling multiple claims this week regarding roadside mailboxes damaged during plowing after the recent historic blizzard.

Piles of snow were still making visibility and, occasionally passage, difficult at some intersections Monday and Tuesday mornings.

Temperatures climbed near the 60s on Monday afternoon and daytime temperatures are expected to stay well above freezing all week.

There was fog followed by some refreezing of water on roads Monday night, prompting salting by the county Tuesday morning. Several ice-related accidents were reported around the county by the Harford Volunteer Fire and EMS Association and the Sheriff's Office.

Meanwhile, rains showers Monday afternoon caused standing water along many roads, where the snow blocked normal drainage outlets.

More rain is forecast for Wednesday with temperatures likely headed back into the 60s, according to the National Weather Service. A flood watch was also issued for the Baltimore area, including Harford, from today through Thursday afternoon.

Municipalities wrap up

Harford's municipal governments were also either done with snow clearing Monday, or ready to finish up.

"We finished up most of our snow removal this past weekend," Aberdeen public works director Kyle Torster said, adding a crew was opening some roads Saturday morning, but the majority of work was over.

As throughout the region, the city was turning its focus to the threat of flooding.

"That's the main concern now, with warm temperatures and the expected rain that's coming up," Torster said. "That's always a concern for us."

He said the city was already looking at the hot spots where overflow issues might occur.

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"We know where our problem areas are in the city and we're just taking the appropriate steps," he said.

Jack Taylor, left, and friend Colin Oree, right, along with their moms and other siblings make their way to Forest Lakes Elementary School Monday morning, the first day since the Jan. 22-23 blizzard that local schools were open.
Jack Taylor, left, and friend Colin Oree, right, along with their moms and other siblings make their way to Forest Lakes Elementary School Monday morning, the first day since the Jan. 22-23 blizzard that local schools were open. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Tim Whittie, Havre de Grace's public works director, said his city still expected to open more areas through the rest of the week.

He said employees are taking a backhoe to dig out the inlets over the next two days, and there is "obviously" a lot of snow piled on road shoulders.

"We have a very strong, concerted effort of shoveling the snow and opening out all the inlets," Whittie said.

After that, crews will "probably be moving to dress up the intersections," he said.

Sidewalks have mostly been fully shoveled, Whittie noted, adding almost all the sidewalks are the responsibility of the property owner.

Steve Kline, Bel Air's public works director, said the town's streets have been "in good shape" since last week, but many business owners and residents have still not shoveled their sidewalks.

Kline noted in an email Tuesday that sidewalks must be shoveled within 24 hours after a snow event ends.

"With that said, I think under these extreme circumstances, one needs to be somewhat sympathetic of the huge volume of snow and the large frozen piles that were piled and dumped on many sidewalks," he said.

Kline said town crews spent three days working to clear sidewalks along routes students use to walk to school.

"Large equipment had to be used to clear sidewalk corners before a snowblower could be used," he said.

Schools open

Harford County Public Schools took the unusual step of announcing Sunday they would be open at the regular time on Monday morning, citing the unusual, historic nature of last week's blizzard.

"While we do not typically make an announcement when schools are operating on a normal schedule, we are asking for everyone's assistance following this historic snowfall in our efforts to open schools tomorrow," a message to parents and the media read.

Columnist remembers the quirks and drama of snowstorms past, not the accumulation.

"We are encouraging parents and guardians to evaluate the safety of their students route to school and make any adjustments they feel necessary to ensure their safe arrival to and from schools and bus stops, since visibility at bus stops and intersections may still be limited," the message continued. "We also encourage the community to continue in their efforts to keep their personal sidewalks clear as the county is making efforts to clear county sidewalks. We are asking that everyone be extra vigilant at stop signs and maneuvering traffic corners when schools reopen tomorrow."

This year's HCPS budget for snow removal is $50,000 for contracted services and $150,000 for supplies, according to Patti Jo Beard, HCPS executive director of facilities.

In a typical weather event, contracted services include things like truck and equipment repairs while the supplies budget is mainly comprised of the cost of salt, she explained in an email Monday.

"During normal weather events, we are able to clear the school parking lots, drives and sidewalks with our internal staff," Beard continued. "Exceptions to these rules occur when there is a considerable weather event that accumulates over 12 inches of snow, like the one we experienced last week."

"In these instances we require assistance with clearing emergency egress from the building and additional equipment is required," she said. "These events greatly exceed the normal budget for inclement weather and when available and allowed, we do request financial assistance through FEMA."

County snow budget

Harford County government's snow removal budget is $1.7 million, according to county administration spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

Mumby said Friday they don't have a good estimate of what they spent last week, other than it is a "significant amount," likely to approach $1 million, "and we're not done."

She noted that bills from the contractors the county presses into service for big snows like this one will take some time to be received and processed.

This year's budget is the first set by Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, and like some of the previous ones, there is a prospect snow removal will go over what was allotted.

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Glassman took office in December 2014, midway through the 2014-15 fiscal year budget set by his predecessor, David Craig. According to Mumby, $1,470,000 was budgeted for snow removal during last winter, one that received early snow (Thanksgiving week) and had numerous snowstorms and "ice events" into the middle of the following March.

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As a result, the county ended up spending almost $2.8 million on snow removal during the winter of 2014-15, nearly $1.3 million more than budgeted. The additional money needed came from elsewhere in the highway fund and from the fund's prior year's fund balance, or unused surplus, Mumby said.

According to figures supplied by county government, the county's snow removal budgets have averaged about $1.5 million annually since 2006. In four of the 10 previous years, the budget was overspent, including by almost $2.4 million – $3.9 million spent – during the "Snowmageddon" winter of 2009-10 and by $1.8 million – $3.3 million spent – during the winter of 2013-14, which produced a constant barrage of snow and ice storms that closed schools for 11 days.

But during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, relatively mild ones, the $1.5 million snow removal budget each year was underspent by $1 million and $856,000, respectively.

Planning ahead

The county will be assessing its performance during the blizzard in the coming days, according to Mumby.

She said the various county agencies have been making notes all along for an "after action report" covering such things as "what worked, what went well and what we can improve going forward."

Brainstorming will continue, she said, "with the benefit of time to reflect what we might do improve."

The process will involve public works, emergency operations, communications, county leadership, "all facets of county's planning and response and recovery."

"You would expect us to do that sort of thing and we do and we will talk about ways to improve in the future," Mumby added. "That's the way successful organizations are run and that's something we planned to do before the storm occurred."

Aegis staff members Bryna Zumer, Allan Vought and David Anderson contributed to this article.

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