Snow-related federal shutdowns cost less than expected, OPM chief says

By Jonathan Mummolo and Ann Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The cost of shuttering federal government offices for five days during this winter's back-to-back snowstorms was an estimated $71 million a day, tens of millions less than previously estimated, the official responsible for the shutdown told a congressional committee Tuesday.

Officials had earlier estimated that the federal shutdowns cost about $100 million a day in lost productivity. But Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said the government was able to salvage some of that loss, in part because of the growing number of federal employees who can work remotely.

Berry said he is trying to increase the number of federal workers eligible to telework by 50 percent from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2011. In the coming years, he said, he hopes that the federal government can get out of the business of closing for snow emergencies and instead declare "mobile work days" while continuing to "conduct business as usual."

Berry spoke to a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, chaired by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who quizzed emergency management officials from Maryland, Virginia and the District about their response to the crippling weather. The snowstorms brought the typically bustling capital and its suburbs to a bleak standstill.

Norton expressed concern about the implications of future natural disasters or terrorist attacks if planning was not more detailed and coordinated.

"The military doesn't throw a bomb and say let's see where it hits. I'm afraid that it was a war against the snow, and the snow had a whole lot more on its side to win," Norton said.

Berry -- who took heat from some residents about his decision to reopen the government the Friday after the last storm, contributing to widespread commuting problems -- defended the calls he made, saying, "I think we made the right decision each and every day. You're going to get flak no matter what you do."

While the federal government and many county governments were closed for the first two workdays after the February storms, the D.C. government remained open, prompting criticism from many city employees stranded in their neighborhoods.

"Do you believe it might have been wiser to close it down? Would you do it differently?" Norton asked Millicent Williams, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

Williams said the city is reviewing its response, including the decision to keep government running for all but two days during the storms.

"We don't think we're perfect, and certainly we're learning every day," Williams said. "If we were to do it again, I'm not sure that the decision would be the same."

Similar questions were posed in a briefing in Prince George's County on Tuesday, where County Council members shared their experiences -- as well as those of their constituents, relayed via a deluge of phone calls and e-mails -- with the officials responsible for roads and public safety.

Council member Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) said she saw contracted trucks being driven around neighborhoods "with their blades up," not plowing. Council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) asked what would be done to address curbs and drains damaged by heavy equipment. Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) said he "couldn't count the number of people who told me that they hadn't seen a plow all year." And council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) disputed a claim that all who made calls about medical issues got help.

Haitham Hijazi, director of the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation, said that his workers did the best they could to clear roads but that equipment and staffing were extremely limited.

"Given the existing resources . . . we've done fairly well for Prince George's County citizens," Hijazi said. "I'm not going to sit down here and say we had no challenges or issues."

Hijazi recommended that the county keep additional contractors on retainer to call on during snow emergencies, buy more equipment and plow entire subdivisions before moving on rather than just their main streets.

Prince George's officials estimate having gone about $9 million to $10 million over their snow-removal budget for the year. A spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said the county will have to pass a supplemental budget this fiscal year to close the hole, which will involve spending funds earmarked for storm water management and dipping into county reserves.

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