From Nevada to New York, already-wobbly city budgets are being walloped by the heavy cost of shoveling out from under record snowfalls.
A mid-December howler dropped 17.1 inches on St. Paul—the most in almost 20 years. The city spread 4,000 tons of salt on 800 miles of streets, added staff and paid overtime. Result?
The city's public works budget has been snowed under by $1 million more than it had budgeted for snow removal.
The figure, says Deputy Mayor Margaret Kelly, likely will rise to $1.3 million. To pay it, she said, the city will have to dip into a fund used to patch potholes, maintain alleys and cut city grass.
The prospect that the fund could be depleted, she says, makes the rest of winter "challenging."
Things are worse in Minneapolis, which has exceeded its snow budget by $3 million. It, too, plans to dip into reserve funds to pay the cost.
In Missouri, tight budgets mean snow plow crews are being told to make roads "passable," not necessarily clear.
New York City, hit hard by a late December blizzard, is still recovering and still paying. A spokesman for the mayor's office says that while not all costs have yet been tallied, the final snow bill should come in at around $38 million.
Given that the city's budget gap next year is forecast to be $2.4 billion, those millions will be missed.
New York and other cities, however, are learning how to get more from their snow-fighting dollar by using new technology.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is adding GPS devices to some of his city's 1,700 plows, which will allow department of sanitation managers not only to track the exact location of each plow but to enjoy direct and instantaneous communication with drivers, directing them to streets most in need of plowing.
In Illinois, which faces a budget crisis so severe that lawmakers have approved a bill raising the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, Chicago's department of sanitation uses GPS already, as part of a comprehensive effort to make more efficient use of the city's resources.
Those include 320 big plows and 27 smaller ones. Sanitation managers use pole- and ground-mounted sensors to constantly monitor weather and road conditions.
They also can access a network of more than 1,000 television cameras—including traffic, police surveillance and red light cameras--to monitor street conditions and make sure plows are where they're supposed to be.
Department spokesman Matt Smith says one plow driver was surprised to get a call from headquarters telling him he was driving incorrectly, with his plow lowered.
"How'd you know?" asked the startled plowman. "Because we're watching you," headquarters replied.
Improvements in weather forecasting make it possible to hold snow crews back until they're really needed. That makes a huge difference, says Smith: "In the old days, we might fire up the trucks and keep them waiting. Now we can be much more precise with where we put our people and when we put them out. That's not just a money-saver, but it means the crews are fresher when they're most needed."
Quincy, Mass., is saving money by paying for its snow removal by the inch, not by the hour.
Public Works Commissioner Larry Prendeville says that Quincy first experimented with the idea in 2009, hiring a contractor to plow on a per-inch basis and achieving a savings of about 10 percent.