Budget threat not slowing the plows…yet, say city officials


More than a foot of snow has fallen on the Twin Cities this season, but Minneapolis and St. Paul have yet to declare a snow emergency. And some metro freeway stretches were pretty slippery during Monday’s morning commute. What’s up with that? Is a looming government budget crisis affecting the clearing of icy and snowy roads.

Not so far, officials say.

As intensifying snow fell late Tuesday afternoon, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mary McFarland said: “We’re plowing everything now. We haven’t cut back at all. It’s just going to be a miserable commute anyway. That’s just the way it is.”

She said MnDOT crews continually plow freeway routes during snowstorms, but continuous snowfall, wind and traffic sometimes negate the work before the next pass.

City officials said they haven’t cut back, either.

“Our snow response is directed only by public safety interests,” Jeremy Hanson, spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said Tuesday. “We don’t know yet what funding cuts we’re facing. When we do know, the mayor and the City Council will look at many options.”

Bob Hume, spokesman for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said the city’s official snow emergency threshold of a 3-inch snowfall or a 3-inch accumulation over several days hasn’t been crossed. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the plows and sand trucks out,” he added. “They’re working their regular shifts.”

Hanson said Minneapolis snow crews have responded to eight “incidences” so far this season. “We’re plowing every day,” he said. Minneapolis’ snow emergency threshold is 4 inches.

Snow emergencies in both cities trigger parking regulations that facilitate round-the-clock plowing until streets are as clear as possible. But that requires extra workers and overtime shifts that cost serious money.

“These things are expensive,” said St. Paul’s Hume. “Some people think we make money off parking tickets during snow emergencies. In fact, each one costs us $500,000 to $750,000.”

Along with other Minnesota cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul are warily eyeing likely cuts in their local aid payments this month as state government stares down a projected 30-month budget deficit of $5.3 billion. Minneapolis is due $41 million on the day after Christmas, St. Paul $28 million.

If they get lumps of coal instead, public safety operations, including snow response, could be affected, Minneapolis’ Hanson said. That’s what happened when state aid was cut during the last budget crisis, in 2003. Since then, partial restoration of state funds, along with increased property taxes, have pumped public safety efforts back up in Minneapolis.

St. Paul, already facing a $13 million budget deficit for 2009, imposed a hiring freeze in September. Now department heads have been ordered to plan 20 percent budget cuts, Hume said. “Everything is going into contingency,” he said.

Even in the toughest times, however, it makes little sense to skimp on keeping streets and highways clear of snow and ice. Absent that, costly accidents increase and restricted mobility cuts into economic efficiency. And those are the last things we need amid a deepening recession.