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Staying open in Prince George’s while others decided to close up shop

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The Prince George’s County government stayed open Wednesday, a calculated risk that appears to have paid off as the predicted massive snowstorm appeared to bypass many close-in Washington suburbs.

Each shutdown costs the county government about $1.5 million, said the county’s chief administrative officer, an expense that is difficult to bear in the $2.7 billion annual budget.

Brad Seamon, the top aide to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), said safety is the top factor in decisions to remain open or shut down. Wednesday’s shutdown of the federal government in the Washington area actually made it easier to keep the suburban government open, he said.

For Wednesday, the prediction was that the snow was to be heavy about 11 a.m. or noon, falling at an inch or so an hour. That meant that at 4 p.m., quitting time for some county employees, there would be two to five inches of snow, he said.

That did not seem too daunting to Seamon, especially because when the county was deciding about 4 a.m. whether to open on time, officials already knew that the federal government would be shutting down.

“That means there will be less people on the road. The question was how bad off will we be, and the answer was probably not that badly off. It was not going to be a major safety hazard (to open the county government). “It was a combination of people not being on the roads and the crews being ready, which allows them to clear the roads off faster,” Seamon said.

The Prince George’s government allowed liberal leave for its 6,000 employees; Seamon did not have an immediate estimate of how many workers stayed home.

Meanwhile, the county’s courts and the school system were shuttered.

Seamon said that whether or not the schools close doesn’t really affect his thinking.

“There are times when the schools probably should be closed when we shouldn’t be, because you are talking about kids.” He said safety is the first consideration, and the risk of opening the schools — and then having a midday shutdown which would cause parents at work to try to scramble to get their kids — is something the county wants to avoid.

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

The county also weighs the risk of a midday shutdown, which is what happened during Carmaggeddon. “If you open, you have to be committed to staying open,” which this time the county was, he said.

He said the county government last shut for Hurricane Sandy. That too was a calculated risk for a storm that largely bypassed the Washington region. He said he had no regrets, saying it is easier for local governments to deal with snow than other weather such as hurricanes.

“In retrospect, the weather did not warrant closing, but based on the facts that we had and potential public safety issues, it was a risk to close but it was worth the risk because you are talking about Mother Nature and a hurricane, which is often worse than snow,” Seamon said.

“There is also nothing you can do about a hurricane, but with snow, you go out and you plow. With storms, you go and rescue people and deal with bad stuff that has already happened.”

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