CHICAGO — States and local governments across the Midwest that were already struggling with budget challenges are bracing for a fresh flurry of bills following last week’s severe winter weather.
Most states affected by the snowstorm expect to release initial cost estimates within the next two weeks. The tab for most is likely to be a relatively small bite out of the overall budget, but as one municipal analyst said, “If you don’t have the cash, you don’t have the cash.”
Ohio estimates that it spent $10 million over five days fighting the storm, accounting for about 15% of its annual winter budget, and that it has already spent more this winter on snow and ice than it does in a typical year.
Missouri, which completely shut down its main interstate highway for the first time in its history, puts its initial costs at $5.5 million, a small piece of the triple-A rated state’s budget.
Larger and harder-hit states like Illinois and Michigan are bracing for much larger costs, and they are banking on federal funds to cover a big chunk of that.
Weaker cities with an already-thin cash position and low reserves will feel the harshest budget strain from the snowstorm, according to Richard Ciccarone, chief research officer at McDonnell Investment Management LLC.
He cited the Illinois cities of Springfield and Rockford, Gary, Ind., and Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs as places that could have a tough time covering the costs.
“For most, it strains them but doesn’t endanger debt service,” Ciccarone said. “For the worst of the worst, it could be a threat to debt service, as well.”
Many of the weakest cities, like Gary, have very little outstanding debt, but “it chips away at your cash cushion,” he said. “We don’t like to see that, because you can get into real problems when there’s a confluence of chipping away all at once — surprise snowstorms, surprise market crashes, losing investment income — together, it can be pretty deadly.”
Chicago has yet to tally its costs, but some reports put the price tag at around $100 million, far exceeding the city’s annual snow-removal budget of around $15 million.
Its inner-ring suburbs, which were already struggling with falling revenue, were forced to spend money that some say they do not have.
To remove 18.5 inches of snow, for example, Joliet has said it spent $450,000, much of it to private contractors the city was forced to hire to help clear streets.
Chicago and other Illinois cities and counties are busy submitting their storm-related costs to the state, which will tally the total and formally request federal disaster assistance, which would cover up to 75% of storm-related costs.
To be eligible for that aid, Illinois will need to report at least $16.1 million of costs — a mark that the local governments in Cook County are likely to hit all by themselves.
“It’s hard to say, but it does sound like what we’re hearing seems to be high,” said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Individual counties may also be eligible for federal assistance. States have 30 days to submit their costs, and Thompson said Illinois is compiling costs by state agencies and local governments and expects to release final cost estimates within the next several days.
More than 2,800 state plow drivers put in 14,000 overtime hours to clear the roads. The Illinois Department of Transportation used 1,629 trucks to clear 16,500 miles of highway, and the Illinois Tollway used its full fleet of 183 snow plows.
Salt, which has nearly doubled in price over the last few years, often is one of the biggest expenses in dealing with winter weather, and it can get even more expensive if a government is forced to supplement its salt reserves by buying it on the open market. Davenport, Iowa, reported that salt accounted for about $850,000 of its $1.2 million winter budget.
The Ohio Department of Transportation annually spends roughly $65 million on snow removal, and it spends the bulk of that money on salt to melt ice and snow. Initial estimates put the cost of last week’s storm at $10 million for the state.
Through Jan. 31, Ohio had spent $57 million this winter on snow operations, and by Feb. 5, it had spent $67 million, said Dave Rose, an ODOT public information officer.
The state spread nearly 100,000 tons of salt to clear the roads during and after the storm. ODOT typically uses about 650,000 tons a year. So far this season, it has used 574,000, Rose said, but the state buys its salt in advance and has plenty in reserves.
“This is Ohio, and there are only two areas in the world that get the intense lake-effect snow, and we happen to be one of them,” the other being somewhere in Russia, he said.
Missouri officials estimate the state spent $5.5 million on snow removal and cleanup costs. That includes $2 million to cover 40,000 overtime hours for state workers and $1.2 million for salt and a beet-juice solution used to clear the roads. Jorma Duran, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said it has a $42 million winter operations budget.
“We will have to adjust some budgets if we get a couple more storms,” Duran said. “It was an amazing winter storm last week, but so far, it hasn’t been the kind of winter that’s making us wonder how we’re going to afford it.”
Indiana expects to release its storm-related costs this week, according to Will Wingfield, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.
As with other states, the final cost is not expected to take a big bite out of Indiana’s budget, but it could end up being a problem if other storms or unexpected events, like tanker explosions, occur before the winter ends.
Wingfield says his department maintains about 11,000 miles of highway and 900 trucks, most of which were mobilized during the storm. It gets most of its salt from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and it had just gotten a delivery before the storm, he said.
“At this point, we don’t necessarily feel as if this winter will be a budget-buster,” Wingfield said. “But if, in the spring, before the fiscal year ends, there’s another significant event, that would be a concern.”