City scrambles to replenish snow emergency fund

Removal blew budget by about $1 million

Spokane Valley may be paying for this winter’s snow removal over the next four years.

Federal disaster assistance is expected to remove a little of the sting, though.

City Finance Director Ken Thompson said snow-removal costs were more than three times the city’s $400,000 plowing budget – an overage of approximately $1 million. The bill included work by private contractors as well as the Spokane County Road Division.

City officials blew through their snow emergency fund in less time than it takes to slide through an icy intersection.

After taking $430,000 from the emergency fund, the city diverted some $200,000 in unspent Public Works money that was budgeted last year for other purposes. Spending cutbacks earlier in the year “gave us a little breathing room,” Thompson said.

Then, he said, it was necessary to siphon about $370,000 from the Public Works reserves, drawing the anticipated carryover down to $1.13 million.

By the time the City Council approved this year’s budget, city officials expected the snow emergency fund to be wiped out. So the council lent $500,000 from the general fund to replenish the snow emergency fund, which is designed to supplement the regular snow removal budget in extra-harsh winters.

The loan is to be repaid over four years.

“You got it,” Thompson said. That means he’s counting on several mild winters.

“We’ve had two really rough snow winters in a row, so my guess is we’re going to come out of this just fine,” he said. “We just have to squeak through here the next couple of years.”

Predicting the weather is in his job description, Thompson joked.

“I’m the guy that stood out in front (of City Hall) on Dec. 15 and talked about the street fund being in good shape unless it really snowed hard the rest of ’08, and I think it started two days later and didn’t quit,” he said.

Deputy City Manager Mike Jackson said he hopes the city will recover nearly $125,000 of its snow costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A FEMA team is in Spokane County this week to go over local governments’ claims for emergency assistance.

Gerry Bozarth, recovery specialist for the Spokane City-County Department of Emergency Management, said earlier this year that a federal disaster declaration would allow cities to be reimbursed for their costliest 48 hours of plowing – among other costs – between Dec. 11 and Jan. 5.

Based on snowfall, Bozarth said, the claims likely would be for the period between Christmas and Jan. 5.

Jackson said Spokane Valley expects to recover $97,000 for plowing on Dec. 27 and 28. Separately, he said the city also hopes to get $7,500 for shoveling snow off the roof of the city police and court building and about $20,000 for weather damage to the CenterPlace Regional Event Center.

Ice pulled down some rain gutters at CenterPlace and cracked some of the glass on its built-in greenhouse, Jackson said. He said an assessment is under way to determine whether the police-court building roof sustained damage that FEMA might cover.

The city of Liberty Lake also will get some money from FEMA but hasn’t yet selected a 48-hour period for reimbursement, according to Community Development Director Doug Smith.

“We’ve got some discretion there,” Smith said. “We’re looking for the biggest impact.”

He estimated the city will receive $10,000 to $12,000 from FEMA. The money will go directly into the city’s street fund for future snow removal, he said.

The city budgeted $50,000 in 2008 for snow removal and raised that to $75,000 in the 2009 budget.

“We blew the 2008 budget by a pretty decent margin, by about 50 percent,” Smith said. “We’ve spent another $24,000 (in 2009).”

He, like Thompson, hopes next winter will be milder.

Staff writer Nina Culver contributed to this report. She may be contacted at ninac@spokesman.com; John Craig, at johnc@spokesman.com.

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