Snow seriously damages town budgets in Northern Virginia

By Sholnn Freeman
Sunday, February 14, 2010

As efforts to dig out from last week's back-to-back snowstorms continued, officials in the Loudoun County area said that they have been left with big holes in their budgets and that they will need federal help to fill them in.

Officials said it would take days to tally the final bills associated with public safety and snow removal, some of which haven't come in yet. Thomas A. Mason, director of public works in Leesburg, said the town exceeded its $245,000 snow budget more than a week before snow began falling in the most recent storm.

Kenneth Reid, a member of the Leesburg Town Council, said the costs are too much for localities to bear.

"Our budget has already been depleted, and the state doesn't have the funds for this," Reid said. "This is the most incredible snowstorm we have ever had."

In Virginia, towns and cities pay for street maintenance within their limits, including the cost of snow removal. But the state budget, through the Virginia Department of Transportation, sets aside funds for local road maintenance, using a formula. Leesburg received $2.6 million in such aid this year. The money covers mowing, pothole and sidewalk repairs, sign maintenance and other road-related costs, not just snow and ice removal.

Purcellville Mayor Robert W. Lazaro Jr. said the town has exhausted the $25,000 it set aside for snow removal. The town gets $500,000 per year in state road funds. He said the town would be able to "calibrate VDOT money" to pay for some of the added storm-related costs. But, he said, it's unlikely to be enough to cover the bill.

Reid and Lazaro are calling for federal help.

"We should not have to dig into our budgets to dig out of this," Reid said.

Reid said severe flooding from melting snow is also a possibility that deserves federal attention.

Lazaro also thinks a state of emergency should be declared.

"I signed the declaration of emergency for the town," he said. "Obviously, we support a call for a declaration of emergency for the region."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate said last week that although decisions would be made case by case, the administration is receptive to issuing presidential disaster declarations for the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Lazaro said the designation would make localities eligible for reimbursement dollars for what was spent on the storms. In the most recent storm, he said, Purcellville had 15 vehicles on the roadways and supplemented its regular road crews with workers from the wastewater division. The utility inspector also helped out. Lazaro said he and the town manager also went out to plow snow.

"There will be a bill," said Tim Hemstreet, the county administrator. He said the cost will be big for the county, although it has no direct responsibility for the cleanup of roadways.

Luckily, Loudoun did not have large-scale power outages or other major weather-related problems. The bill for the county would be made up mostly of labor costs, including overtime, for fire and rescue personnel, the sheriff's department, general services staff members and parks and recreation crews that were operating plows to clear county facilities. "The cost is running across all of our operational divisions," he said.

To dig out, Leesburg has run two 12-hour shifts, with 25 workers per shift, dedicated to the snow removal operation. The town used six contractors and deployed 26 to 30 vehicles, including trucks and dump trucks with plows, tractors and front-end loaders.

Still, many residents were not satisfied. Leesburg officials came under criticism for their decision to make main roads merely passable and move on to neighborhood streets, rather than clearing the main roads down to the pavement.

The decision left snow that became packed, turned into slush or refroze, leaving key roads in town bumpy. "It was a trade-off, and we are certainly evaluating how that worked, where we could have made improvements and how we could do it differently," said Leesburg spokeswoman Betsy Fields. "We take citizen complaints very seriously."

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