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Milder and relatively snow-free winter saving Chicago millions

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his hands full with a financial crisis at the Chicago Public Schools, a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department and a homicide rate that’s twice as high as it was last year.

But there’s at least one thing in the mayor’s world that’s going better than expected: Chicago’s comparatively mild and snow-free winter weather and the lower snow removal costs that come with it.

The Emanuel administration disclosed Tuesday that it has spent just $10.4 million removing snow and ice from Chicago streets since Nov. 1, half the annual budget that’s supposed to cover snow removal for the end of this winter and the beginning of next winter.

The figure, disclosed Tuesday in response to a Freedom of Information request, includes the cost of equipment, labor, salt and employee overtime, with overtime accounting for $2.7 million of that amount.

“This winter season is not over. And the city will not know if there are any savings until the end of 2016. Any savings will be put into our snow escrow for future snowy winters,” Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, wrote in an email.

The city braced for a snowstorm Wednesday that could pack moderate to heavy snow and strong north winds. The National Weather Service says parts of the Chicago area could get 7 inches of snow by Wednesday night.

Last year, Emanuel spent $10.2 million on the cleanup from a Super Bowl Sunday blizzard that buried the city in 19.3 inches of snow and had the potential to bury his re-election campaign.

When the storm hit just over three weeks before the Feb. 24 election, Emanuel’s political life flashed before him.

He spared no expense, well aware that a tepid, belated and arrogant city response to the Blizzard of ’79 had buried then-Mayor Michael Bilandic.

After a blizzard of complaints about side streets, alleys and sidewalks still buried in snow days after it stopped snowing, Emanuel leased 220 pieces of heavy equipment and operators to assist in the neighborhood cleanup at a cost of near $1 million.

It was the first time that City Hall had shifted into what’s known as “Phase 4″ of its snow plan since the Ground Hog Day blizzard of 2011 that shut down Lake Shore Drive and stranded hundreds of motorists and CTA buses for hours.

That happened in the waning months of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration and produced embarrassing photographs seen around the world.

Emanuel vowed never to repeat it.

At the time, the mayor acknowledged that when the snow kept coming on Super Bowl Sunday, he couldn’t help but think about Bilandic and the Blizzard of `79.

After carrying on his tradition of visiting local churches, Emanuel said he made it home, changed clothes and hustled down to the 911 center, where he told his staff, “This is game day. That [Super Bowl] is over. This is game time. Everybody had better get their s— together.”

Although some aldermen and their constituents complained about the condition of their side streets, Emanuel argued that city employees did “valiant work.”

“The city never came anywhere close to shutting down public transportation like New York. Never came close to Lake Shore Drive. And never came close to Atlanta. And we faced 19.4 inches in 26 hours. It’s a heroic effort by all the public employees and all the residents,” the mayor said.

After the snow emergency ended, Emanuel directed the Department of Streets and Sanitation to turn its attention to studying the alternate-side-of-the-street parking idea championed by the mayor and South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) that could put an end to Chicago’s treasured dibs system.

During the height of the storm, Sawyer suggested requiring motorists to move their cars from one side of the street to the other whenever heavy snow is forecast. Minutes later, Emanuel embraced the idea.

If temporary parking can somehow be found in parking-starved Chicago neighborhoods, that would allow the city to plow snow-covered residential streets all the way to the curb — and without having to worry about burying vehicles that homeowners have painstakingly dug out.

“[Sawyer] is scratching an itch that I’m gonna scratch, too. I just don’t know how yet,” the mayor said at the time.

“We do it for street sweeps in the spring. Can we use the same concept that, when it’s north of 10 [inches]? We’re going to give you times when you pull the cars out. We’ll plow that curb-to-curb and get it done. People are going to say, ‘Where am I going to park?’ That’s a legitimate thing. That’s what these people will figure out.”

Nothing ever came of the idea.

In 2014, a “snow escrow” salted away in anticipation of a brutal winter allowed Chicago to absorb $33.2 million in snow-removal spending — $12.9 million over budget — without raising taxes. That’s even though Chicago was hit with 70 inches of snow.

Since taking office five years ago, Emanuel has routinely set aside a “base budget” of $20 million for snow removal. But Budget Director Alex Holt has made a habit of setting aside roughly $10 million extra in the motor fuel tax fund that covers snow removal and bridge repairs just in case Mother Nature lowers the boom.

That’s where any savings will go if, as expected, Chicago gets an early spring.