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With snow approaching, Washington area officials wonder how to pay for plowing

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

As the second major snowstorm of the winter bears down on Washington this weekend, the budgets that keep the plows rolling are as exhausted as the crews who drive them.

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Even before a surprise storm swept in last weekend, Maryland, Virginia and the District had spent millions more than their annual budgets allowed. That blast, and an overnight snowfall that ended Wednesday, sank budgets deeper into the red with weeks of winter weather still ahead.

Although it has snowed as late as April in the Washington region, the season generally ends in March. If that's the case this year, Maryland and Virginia will have three months remaining in their fiscal year to find money to close the budget gap caused by snow. The District follows the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"What non-safety-critical things can we cut back on -- line striping, litter pickup, nonessential signs, mowing?" asked David Buck of Maryland's State Highway Administration. "We're going to be approaching $50 million pretty soon, though it's still a moving target. It's already been spectacular, and we've got a lot of winter left."

The need to find millions more to pay for snow removal comes at a time when the legislatures in Richmond and Annapolis are grappling with dire revenue shortfalls for the budget year that begins July 1. The additional tens of millions for snow plowing in the current fiscal year will probably necessitate cuts in other areas.

"In the past, we've gotten budget amendments to pay these bills," Buck said. "This time around, the long and short of it is that the money's just not there. We knew that going into this winter."

Budgeting for snow removal requires a crystal ball and, in lean financial years, the guts to bet against the wrath of Mother Nature.

The average annual cost of snow removal in Maryland has been just short of $45 million. This year's budget was pegged at $26 million. Before last weekend's storm and Wednesday's sub-six inches (depths varied), the tally was already more than $36 million.

"It's safe to say that it will be several million more for last weekend," Buck said.

The storm predicted to begin Friday and continue until late Saturday will be the third weekend snowfall of the season.

"From a transportation point of view, it's good, because there are fewer vehicles on the road and that makes it easier to plow," Buck said. "But from an expense point of view, it's a pain, because it's all overtime pay."

Overtime is a bigger issue in Maryland, where about 35 percent of the Highway Administration crews are state workers who receive overtime, than in Northern Virginia, where 90 percent of the work is handled by contractors.

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