Snowfall takes bite out of city budget

Clout Street

The snow sandwich that has forced Chicagoans to lean into their shovel handles and idle in slushy traffic jams with annoying frequency in recent weeks also has dug into the city’s winter street plowing budget.

Snow removal in November and December has cost $4.6 million, bringing the total for the year to $14.37 million, according to Streets and Sanitation Department officials. The city set aside $16.3 million for snow removal in 2013, leaving about $2 million to get through the rest of the month.

That money can get eaten up fast once the flakes start coming down: $1.06 million has been spent since Nov. 1 on overtime for plow drivers and other city workers responding to snowfalls and $736,000 has been spent on fuel and equipment. And the city used $3.5 million worth of salt and beet juice during that time to de-ice roads.

“Safety is a top priority of the city, and obviously plowing is important to keep our streets safe,” said Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Molly Poppe in an e-mail. “DSS is constantly evaluating its snow plowing efforts to increase efficiency, and we do not anticipate going over budget.”

The city plans for snow plowing each year with a combination of high hopes and political pragmatism. If the winter turns out to be mild, maybe Streets and Sanitation comes in under the cost estimate and there’s some money and salt left over. But if Chicago gets walloped, no expense will be spared to clear the streets as soon as possible.

Heading into a 2015 re-election bid, it’s a fair bet Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows his Chicago snow history. Mayor Michael Bilandic’s election demise in the aftermath of the blizzard of 1979 has of course passed into the annals of municipal legend, and his successors have taken that fiasco to heart.

Mayor Richard M. Daley was finishing up more than two decades in office when about 21 inches of snow fell in Chicago in early February 2011, trapping motorists in their cars on Lake Shore Drive. Daley spent $37.3 million to deal with that blizzard — more than double what he set aside for snow removal for the whole year.

If the plow money runs out, the city would first divert money from plow repair and maintenance to get through the end of the year. The city set aside $3.5 million for that this year and has $1.5 million left, Poppe said. "If additional resources are needed, the city will make them available," Poppe said.

The city has spent about $16.37 million on snow removal and equipment maintenance this year. Last year, those costs were just $9.89 million, as winter and autumn featured long stretches of balmy weather that had residents hanging Christmas lights in short-sleeved shirts and prematurely contemplating a future in which global warming made that uniform the norm.

With the new year comes a new budget. The city has earmarked “a little over” $16 million for snow removal in 2014, including the cost of overtime, salt and beet juice, and $3.1 million for maintenance and repairs to the equipment, Poppe said.

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