Chicago has already plowed through $25 million in snow removal spending — $4.5 million over a budget that was supposed to cover this winter and the start of next — exacerbating the city’s financial crisis.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has dipped into a $6 million motor fuel tax fund surplus to cover the extra spending, leaving only $1.5 million in the fund that has served as the mayor’s security blanket during the relentless barrage of snow and cold.
Normally, the motor fuel tax fund is used to pave streets and fill the explosion of potholes caused by heavy moisture and dramatic temperature swings. Emanuel has been “working to improve” the fund “with the purpose of creating a snow reserve,” sources said.
Once the surplus is exhausted, the mayor may have no choice but to ask the City Council to approve a supplemental appropriation to cover snow removal costs.
“This is the snowiest winter in 35 years — worst since the blizzard of 1979 — and is the seventh-snowiest in history,” Kelley Quinn, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, said Wednesday.
“Regardless of future snowfalls, the streets will remain plowed and passable,” Quinn said. “We will not let the city grind to a halt.”
Emanuel’s mistake was in assuming that the $20.5 million that got Chicago through last year’s breeze of a winter — with just 19.6 inches of snow at O’Hare International Airport — would be enough to plow city streets again this year.
He was wrong. Mother Nature lowered the boom on Chicago, with 23 inches of snow since New Year’s Eve alone and the arrival of a polar vortex that kept temperatures below zero for days. This season, Chicago has already seen 62.1 inches of snow at O’Hare and 66 inches at Midway with more likely to come.
The weather has wreaked havoc with the mayor’s snow removal budget, with $25 million in spending through last weekend alone.
The largest chunk of city spending through last weekend — $15.9 million — paid for 360,000 tons of salt spread on Chicago streets, too often with little to show for it because of sub-zero temperatures.
City Hall refused to say how much salt is left.
Some of the money went to private contractors still picking up salt from piles in Downstate Ottawa and Comanche, Iowa, to replenish a supply that started the winter at 285,000 tons but dropped to 70,000 tons after a Morton Salt Co. barge got stuck in ice on the Mississippi River near Downstate Cairo.
The hired trucks — a term that’s been verboten at City Hall since the 2004 scandal by the same name — come from KLF and Plote, a pair of trucking companies that have an emergency services contract with the city.
Five years ago, Plote was one of only a handful of bidders to respond to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s bid to privatize one of Chicago’s most politically slippery tasks — side-street snow removal — and the only company willing to perform the service citywide.
The poor showing — and almost universal opposition from aldermen fearful of losing control over a service that can make or break a Chicago alderman — prompted Daley to drop the idea like the political hot potato that it was.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said the $25 million in snow removal spending will create “unnecessary pressure” on the budget, largely because Emanuel “did not plan for any unforeseen circumstances, including snowstorms, floods, tort claims or declining” revenue.
“The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that Chicago have enough unallocated reserves to cover two months of expenses for unanticipated events just like this one,” he said.
“The city does not follow that practice. It relies on either cutting the budget or borrowing for unforeseen circumstances,” Msall said. “The budget is precariously balanced because it doesn’t contain unallocated reserves.”
The snow removal budget deficit could not come at a more inopportune time for Chicago and Emanuel, who will stand for re-election in just one year.
Next year, the city is required by state law to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 percent and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.
Emanuel wants the Illinois General Assembly to put off the balloon payment until 2023. That would give the city time to negotiate a painful mix of employee concessions and increased revenues without raising property taxes so high that it triggers an exodus to the suburbs.