By Karen anderson
ANNAPOLIS – While snowfall to some means outdoor winter fun and time off from school, to county governments it requires big spending on equipment and overtime pay to clear roads and ensure safety.
For counties across the state already teetering financially, a heavy winter could push their budgets over the edge, especially in snowy Western Maryland.
“It’s really going to put a hurt on us if we have a harsh winter,” said Dennis Glotfelty, the chair of the Board of Garrett County Commissioners.
The National Weather Service predicts normal temperature and precipitation this winter, leaving counties in a struggle to pay for their commitment to keep roads safe in winter weather no matter the cost.
“You can’t reduce services,” said Garrett County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt. “You have to plow the roads.”
“The safety of the people is too important to us,” said Glotfelty.
Last winter Garrett County had 134 inches of snowfall and to manage it paid out 15,000 hours of overtime and put down more than $800,000 worth of abrasives on county roads, said Garrett County Road’s Department Superintendent Jay Moyer.
Garrett County’s overall operating budget has shrunk nearly 30 percent since last year.
So far in fiscal 2010, the state has reduced aid to Garrett County by $3.6 million, almost all of which was made through a cut to the Highway User Fund, a state program that draws revenue from the gas tax and gives money to local governments.
This year, dollars from the state’s Highway User Fund were reduced by 93 percent or more in every jurisdiction in Maryland, except Baltimore.
Garrett County was initially allocated about $3.5 million in Highway User Funds. The state has now cut all but $352,000.
To compensate, Garrett County implemented a hiring freeze, created retirement incentives for current employees, postponed street paving assignments, and cut three major capital projects — the building of a connector road, a public works office building and a detention center.
“We just couldn’t afford them,” Pagenhardt said of the terminated capital projects. “The sole reason for that is the funds just were not there. We didn’t see the growths in local revenue, plus the cuts in state funds.”
Now the county is looking for creative spending strategies to maintain its 680 miles of roads this winter.
“The big thing we need to look at is overtime,” Pagenhardt said. “And that’s why we’re going to these selective and creative shifts.”
The county put its 130 roads department workers on a new rotation schedule that will re-define what’s considered overtime, changing the work day’s start time from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m., since often crews are called out early to clear the roads for morning traffic.
“We’re trying to eliminate it,” said Garrett County’s Moyer, regarding overtime pay. “But need be, we’ll pay overtime on the tail end of the day.”
Moyer said although his workers are under a union contract, “The County has the right to schedule the work day, so we make adjustments.”
That plan could reduce overtime payments by up to $300,000 this winter, according to Glotfelty.
Other counties, such as Allegany, are unable to re-define overtime because of union restrictions.
Allegany County Roads Division Chief James Lashley said the state cut two-thirds of the department’s budget, a loss supplemented by county government.
“They take it out of the general fund to make up,” Lashley said. “But that fund, it doesn’t last too long either.”
Since last year, Allegany’s roads department lost 7 percent of its crew and is unable to hire replacements, so it must now allocate resources more cautiously.
“In years previous, if we had a snow event that was going to happen in the morning, we’d have a crew out there at 4:30 (a.m.) or 5 (a.m.) and we would want to have the roads clear before school starts,” Lashley said. “But now we’re going to have to be more shy about that.”
Pagenhardt said Garrett County may reduce its workweek to four days later in the year to save money, something other roads departments across the state, such as in Frederick County, have already tried.
William Routzahn, superintendent of the Office of Highway Operations in Frederick County, reorganized his workweek to four, 10-hour days in April, primarily because it allowed crews to stay longer at worksites, reducing the required set up and take down hours.
The department, unable to work into the evening as daylight hours shortened, switched back to five-day workweeks on Oct. 8.
Still, Routzahn knows this won’t be the last of the creative reductions needed in Frederick County. Even the county’s typical $1 million Snow Reserve Fund may be in jeopardy this year.
“Right now it’s still in place,” Routzahn said, “but if they would need it to offset the budget somewhere, it’s theirs to use.”
“Once the state was hit with their budget crisis, they had to reduce,” he said. “It got passed on to us.”
With already grim finances, many local governments across the state may be just one snowstorm away from a financial calamity.