Blizzard tests city’s winter-weather budget

The recent blizzard that smothered much of Connecticut in more than a foot of snow has strained New Haven’s snow removal budget, and clean-up costs might soon deplete the city’s remaining funds. The state government is seeking federal relief for Connecticut cities, but snowplows will continue to clear New Haven streets regardless, city officials said.

New Haven is most of the way through its snow clearance budget, said Pierre Barbour, the chief financial officer of the New Haven Department of Public Works. As of yesterday, the department had spent 87.5 percent of the money set aside for plowing and de-icing city roads. Though the city stayed under budget last year, severe weather has outstripped the city’s plans in the past, Barbour said.

Dick Miller, the city’s director of engineering and public works, said the recent blizzard alone cost his department more than $91,000 — more than a quarter of its total snow removal budget. Of the $418,000 set aside for snow clearance this winter, the Department of Public Works has spent $365,000. With at least a month of winter left, staying under budget will be tough, Miller said.

“We’re running on fumes right now,” he said. “Since mid-January, [storms] came just one on top of the other — and most of it’s been happening on weekends, which means more overtime to pay. It just kills us.”

Miller said guessing the weather was almost impossible. While the city tries to prepare for harsh winters, he said, a blizzard of the magnitude New Haven saw a week and a half ago defied planning altogether.

“I don’t think any town budget is set up to handle a storm of more than 12 inches,” Miller said.

If such a budget crisis occurred, the department would not leave ice and snow to pile up on New Haven roads, he said. The city never cuts back on plowing because the danger of accidents is too high. Instead, Miller said, he would first attempt to divert other public works funds to the task. If that effort failed, he would ask the Board of Aldermen to vote for a budget increase, he said.

“We’re certainly not going to make a public safety decision based on money,” Miller said. “It’s too important.”

Federal funds may come to Miller’s aid. Last Wednesday Gov. M. Jodi Rell wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to declare a state of emergency across Connecticut. In her letter, Rell cited record snowfall, major transportation disruptions and predictions of further storms as reasons for the declaration.

If Bush declared an emergency, Connecticut municipalities and state agencies would qualify for a substantial reimbursement of the blizzard’s cost, gubernatorial spokesman Dennis Schain said.

“The federal government would cover 75 percent of all costs directly related to snow removal,” Schain said, adding that only money spent during the weekend of the blizzard would merit federal funding.

In her letter, Rell delegated responsibility for negotiating and administering federal aid to the State Office of Emergency Management. Kerry Flaherty, the director of the office, said estimates of the blizzard’s total cost to Connecticut — including those to municipalities and concerned nonprofit agencies — range from $12 to $15 million.

In prior years, Flaherty said, the state budget set aside money to offset the cost to cities of major storms, but the program has since been dropped. This year, monetary relief can only come from the federal government, Flaherty said, and such aid is by no means certain.

“Until the president declares a disaster, we’re waiting on the Feds,” he said. “It’s up to them.”

If Bush does declare a state of emergency, Flaherty said, the Office of Emergency Management will meet with the affected state agencies and municipalities to determine the amount of money to be reimbursed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will then make its final decision and send the Connecticut OEM a check to distribute aid statewide. Connecticut has received this kind of aid before, he said.

“The thing to remember is that the municipalities are familiar with this process,” Flaherty said. “There was a state of emergency declared in each of the last two winters, during the month of December.”

State Rep. Bill Dyson, who represents New Haven, said the blizzard definitely merited federal aid.

“It’s just like if you have a hurricane,” Dyson said. “We don’t have hurricanes in Connecticut–we have blizzards.”

Dyson said he believes Rell already knows what Bush’s answer will be, and the request itself amounted to political posturing.

“The reality is that you don’t make that pitch [to the federal government] unless you’ve already called and inquired,” Dyson said. “You either do it because you’re sure, or you may ask knowing that they’re going to say no, because you want the public to think you’re on top of the situation.”

All political issues aside, the final result for New Haven’s snow removal budget hangs on the weather, Miller said.

“One of the most difficult things to do is second-guess snowstorms,” he said. “If we’re fortunate, we’ll stay under budget. We still have winter ahead of us.”

Having already faced one blizzard in 2005, New Haven fears overspending the snow-clearance budget if hit with more snowstorms this year.
Kari Rittenbach
Having already faced one blizzard in 2005, New Haven fears overspending the snow-clearance budget if hit with more snowstorms this year.

Comments