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Record snowfall, changing climate raise questions about preparedness for storm cleanup

Should Baltimore-area governments set aside more money to clean up snow?

When nearly 6 feet of snow fell last winter in her hometown of Charlestown, R.I., Amy Hood said the town barely missed a beat, and school was rarely canceled.

A year later in her new home in Annapolis, the artist and stay-at-home mom did not expect that 2 feet of snow would keep her three children out of school for a week. "I started out kind of baffled," she said of Maryland's snow response, "and now I am just frustrated and disdainful. I don't understand."

As Baltimore-area residents lambaste their governments for a storm cleanup that took the better part of a week, many are raising questions about how the region can better handle future snowstorms.

While Maryland remains below the Mason-Dixon line, global climate change knows no boundaries. Meteorologists say historic snowfalls may be more likely as warming temperatures lead to more precipitation.

Some say we may be seeing extreme weather changes already. Last weekend's storm dropped a record 29.2 inches on the Baltimore region, and half of the top 10 biggest snowstorms in Baltimore since 1892 have been in the past two decades — including the three largest.

But in some ways, the local response has not changed. For a third straight winter, local and state snow removal budgets have remained largely the same. And for a third straight year, those agencies expect to blow past those budgets and tap other funds to cover the costs.

Baltimore City, for example, spent about $14 million in each of the past two winters — five times its annual budget of about $2.8 million. Three years ago, the city spent about $320,000 more than it planned.

Other cities like Washington, New York and Boston budget far more than Baltimore. The District of Columbia, with 24 fewer square miles to clear, has budgeted about $403,000 for each inch of average annual snowfall the city gets. By comparison, Baltimore has set aside $143,000 per inch of snow.

As some frustrated residents dug themselves out last week, many were asking whether elected officials can do more to quickly clear the roads and get people back to work and kids in school.

"This notion that a city leader can't see this coming during a period of climate change and where Baltimore has seen snow totals comparable to this, to me, raises a question of basic competence in city leadership," said Michael Runnels, an associate professor at Loyola's Sellinger School of Business who lives in Canton and specializes in urban development and government ethics.

Local leaders acknowledged the frustration and that they may have failed to manage constituent expectations, but they also defended their efforts, saying massive snowstorms are still a rarity. They said they plan to review snow removal budgets, but added that more money may not be the answer.

To be sure, snow-hardy cities like Denver and Detroit plan on spending less than Baltimore per inch of average annual snowfall — $58,000 and $134,000, respectively.

"I've heard some people say that we should be more like Buffalo or Cleveland," Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said. "I don't think you're going to want to have a budget that is focused on having the worst storm every year. That just probably isn't a reasonable budget."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rated last weekend's storm as the fourth-worst to hit the Northeast since 1950, based on a scale that accounts for the amount of snow and the number of people affected.

While 29.2 inches of snow were measured at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the region's point of record, many other parts saw more than 30 inches, including Reisterstown, Jacksonville, Westminster and Bel Air.

This will be the third consecutive winter with more snowfall than the climatological average of about 20 inches per season. For the three previous winters — after the record-setting, 77-inch snowfall in the 2009-2010 winter — the Baltimore region saw below-normal snowfall.

Snowy years translated into skyrocketing costs for local governments, responsible for city and county streets, and the State Highway Administration, which clears numbered state routes and federal interstates.

The state agency spent a total of $190 million more than budgeted over the past three years.

Like the city, Baltimore County spent about $14 million in each of the past two winters. That's more than twice the $6 million the county sets aside annually. Harford and Carroll counties each exceeded their budgets by a total of more than $2.5 million over the past two winters.

Anne Arundel County doesn't include a line item for snow removal in its budget. Its costs have ranged from $1 million in a nearly snowless winter four years ago to $14 million for the winter when "Snowmageddon" hit in 2010.

Officials across the region are still tallying what they spent on salt, gasoline and contractors over the past week, but said they expect a big tab.

"Rest assured, it's going to be substantial," said Howard Libit, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Most governments are budgeting and spending significantly more than they were a decade ago — Howard County spent just $295,000 on snow removal in 2006 and Harford County set aside as little as $350,000 in 1997. Baltimore's budget has doubled since the blizzard of 2003, the second-highest snowfall in the city's history.

Nonetheless, some officials are reluctant to spend more on equipment or manpower. Officials in Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties said they don't expect to change their budgets next year.

City officials said they are still evaluating the situation and noted fiscal constraints.

"Based on recent snows, we will review to see if additional funding is warranted," said Henry Raymond, Baltimore's finance director. "Our general fund is under tremendous pressure. If we increase our snow budget, money will have to come from other services and could impact personnel."

Some questioned the need for high-tech snow melters and other specialized equipment more common in New England.

"I don't know we want to purchase a bunch of equipment for a worst-case scenario," said Andrew Kleine, Baltimore's budget director. "We want to make sure our annual budgets are more reflective of actual costs."

Officials said they do hope to take lessons from the recent storm — including tips from crews who traveled from Boston and elsewhere to help with the cleanup — so they can spend more efficiently next time.

"We're learning more about how to do effective snow removal," said David Reese, deputy director of public works for Carroll County.

In Howard County, after an online snow plow tracker failed during the storm, officials learned they need to "manage expectations and be honest with people about what we can and can't do and when we're going to get there," said Jim Irwin, director of the county's public works department.

Some officials said they have made new investments. State Highway Administration officials said they have purchased more sophisticated equipment in recent years, including trucks with plows on three sides and others that carry twice the amount of salt and fuel that standard trucks carry.

Meteorologists say it may be prudent to expect more snow.

Paul Kocin, a NOAA meteorologist, said it may not be time for the Baltimore area to invest in the kind of snow removal equipment used in Buffalo or Boston. But he has noticed a pattern of megastorms hitting in recent years. While a link hasn't been proven, he said one cause could be global warming, and that could make big snowstorms more likely in the future.

Antonio Busalacchi Jr., a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, College Park, said: "As climate warms, there is an increase in water vapor that has to come down somewhere."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Yvonne Wenger, Luke Broadwater, Pamela Wood, Andrew Michaels, Heather Norris, Kimber Matzinger-Vought and Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MdWeather

NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated Harford County’s budget plans for next year. Harford officials say they have not made budget decisions regarding snow response for next year.

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