On the Block: Out in the Cold

As one third of the country prepares for winter weather this week, state and local governments are struggling to find a way to pay for the aftermath. Snow and ice removal is taking a toll on budgets across the country, and winter is not yet over. Today we'll take a quick look at some of those governments and how they are planning to meet their needs.

States that do not usually see snow in the winter, particularly in the South, are finding other places in the budget to take their snow removal money from. South Carolina, who spent an estimated $2.7 million on the mid-January storm that lingered for 4 four days, is using funds from their annual road maintenance account to compensate.

Local governments in Alabama are stuck with the costs of snow removal at the municipal level because they did not meet federal cost thresholds. They spent $2 million clearing out after last week's storm, but they needed to spend at least $5.8 million to qualify for federal emergency aid.

Other states like New Jersey, who are used to brutal winters with plenty of snowfall, are also having trouble making ends meet. New Jersey spent their entire snow removal budget of $20 million before last week's storm, which dropped another foot of snow. The New Jersey Department of Transportation is also borrowing money from other columns on the spreadsheet, but has applied to the federal government for over $50 million in aid.

Still more locales are used to under-budgeting for snow removal and betting on being able to borrow from other government accounts to make up the difference. In Northampton, MA, the government borrowed for snow removal last year but did not increase this year's budget to compensate and so must borrow again. The city used to purchase snow removal insurance to help with this, but the premiums rose and the city has declined to purchase it for the last three years. All this as the city's Mayor declares a State of Emergency to help the Department of Public Works deal with already unpassable roads and an expected additional foot of snow by February 2, 2011.

Aside from the giant costs of plows, road salt, and labor, there are many more ways in which winter storms hurt already straining budgets. The city of New York suspends parking meter collections during snow storms, losing money each time the city gets hit with a blizzard. Airports accross the country will be affected by this week's weather, stranding travelers and costing airlines and airports millions in lost revenue.

While elected officials at every level of government wrestle with tough budgeting choices, this winter's snow storms offer us an important reminder about the fundamental services that cannot be cut, including those that keep the public safe.