What happened to plows? Baltimore County residents question street clearing


An article in yesterday's editions on Baltimore County snow removal reported incorrectly the retirement date of former county highway chief Saverio Cortese. It should have said that he retired earlier this month.

The Sun regrets the errors.

When Shirley Merrill looked out the windows of her Randallstown home Monday, she saw streets plowed to the right of her and streets plowed to the left of her.

But her street, Eastman Road, wasn't plowed at all. And she wondered why.

"It just doesn't make any sense that other streets around me were plowed and just my street wasn't," she said. "Someone has to answer for this."

Three days after the Blizzard of '93, many other county residents -- and their councilmen -- were also wondering why the county's efforts to plow its 2,700 miles of roads seemed so haphazard.

For example, Councilman William A. Howard IV, a 6th District Republican, said streets in White Marsh were plowed two or threes times while streets west of Belair Road weren't plowed at all.

"It seemed like most our complaints were that streets seemed to be skipped by the snow plows for no apparent reason," said Gail LeCompte, an aide to Catonsville Councilwoman Berchie L. Manley, a 1st District Republican. "We never had complaints like that before."

Some council members blamed the problems on recent layoffs of highway supervisors experienced in snow removal. Others said the sale of some older, heavy equipment such as front-end loaders might have contributed to delays in clearing north county snow drifts.

Officials in the Department of Public Works and County Executive Roger B. Hayden's office defended the snow removal efforts. They argued that the harsh conditions of the unusual storm caused some problems -- not layoffs or lack of equipment.

The storm dumped nine to 14 inches of snow in Baltimore County, with drifts as high as 10 feet in outlying areas. When the snow turned to rain late in the storm and then froze, it formed a hard crust that made cleanup a nightmare.

"We did a really great job," said Gene L. Neff, the county'longtime public works director.

While each truck was assigned a route, he said, the trucks often had to leave them and return repeatedly to primary roads as drifting occurred. He also noted that his plows have rubber edges which are ineffective against packed, frozen snow.

Whatever the reason, lines to the highway department were jammed, and a record number of complaints poured into council offices.

"We probably had 100 calls come, the most I ever remember," said Tracey Gingher, an aide to Mr. Howard.

In the compact Millbrook community, tucked along the city-county line near Reisterstown Road Plaza, none of the six streets was cleared until late Wednesday.

"The streets on the city side of the line were all plowed, but ours wasn't," said Phyllis Oppenheim, president of the Millbrook Community Association. "Usually, it's the other way around."

In a small Reisterstown community just north of Butler Road and Route 30, a handful of residents got tired of waiting and spent three days clearing 800 feet of road with shovels, picks and snow blowers.

Many of the residents here are elderly and some needed to get urgently needed prescriptions filled," said Graig Singhaus. "We had to do something. We never had this problem before."

Although he praised the efforts of county work crews, Mr. Singhaus said it took intervention from heir county councilman, Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, to get the streets plowed late Tuesday.

Pikesville Councilman Melvin Mintz, a 2nd District Democrat, said he couldn't remember this many complaints in past snows of equal ferocity.

"This is not a slam at the employees out there driving the trucks and so forth, who worked very hard under awful circumstances, but I think we missed the supervisors who had the experience in snow removal," he said.

By all accounts, the highway department is much thinner than it was a few years ago.

In 1991, the county eliminated 52 vacant highway jobs. And during last month's layoffs and the reorganization that followed, the bureaus of traffic engineering and highways were merged.

Highway chief Saverio Cortese retired a year ago. His deputy, Albert Bethke, was laid off. Of the three long-time highway supervisors responsible for scheduling snowplows, one retired a year ago and was not replaced. The other two were laid off and their jobs eliminated.

Mr. Neff said he supervised the effort and slept at the office Saturday night. He added that many of the first-line supervisors who handled the snow removal were experienced.

He added that C. Richard Moore, now the bureau chief for traffic engineering and highways, got some experience at the highway job during the season's earlier snowstorms -- when there were no complaints.

He also argued that eight to 10 old pieces of equipment the county sold off were so unreliable that they would have hindered, rather than helped, the repair effort.

Concerned by the calls they were getting, council members asked for and got a meeting with a senior Hayden administration aide on Tuesday. After that, they said, the complaining communities were plowed.

But Councilman Ruppersberger, a 3rd District Democrat, said the Hayden administration needs to analyze the effort.

"I don't want to be critical until such an analysis is done, but when you have situations where one street is plowed and the next one isn't or where whole neighborhoods aren't plowed for three or four days, I'd have to say there is a management problem somewhere," he said.

Several council members suggested using private contractors to augment the county's snow removal force in heavy storms.

Nicholas C. Spinnato, a senior aide to Mr. Hayden, said the county does not plan anything other than its normal review.

"The county executive has said that he feels under the circumstances, the county did a great job with snow removal," Mr. Spinnato said.

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