Snow escrow to help Chicago cover $33.2 million in snow costs

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A “snow escrow” salted away in anticipation of a brutal winter will allow Chicago to absorb $33.2 million in snow removal spending — $12.9 million over budget — without raising taxes, a top mayoral aide said Friday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel set aside $20.3 million for snow removal for all of 2014 assuming that would be enough to cover this winter and the start of next.

Instead, he had already spent $33.2 million through Thursday after a storm this week that dropped another six inches on parts of Chicago.

That includes: $19.3 million on salt, $7 million on labor, including countless hours of overtime; $5.3 million on equipment and $1.6 million on private trucks hired to pick up salt after a Morton Salt Co. barge got stuck in ice on the Mississippi River.

That has fueled speculation about a supplemental appropriation to cover snow removal costs that would either be covered by  borrowing or by a mid-year tax increase.

On Friday, Budget Director Alex Holt put those dire scenarios to the rest.

Holt said there’s a $12 million surplus in the motor fuel tax fund that covers snow removal and bridge repairs that will be “carried over into 2014 to offset” the extraordinary costs incurred during this brutal winter that just won’t quit.

There’s also a “surplus in the city’s corporate fund and other  funds” that could be tapped, thanks to “nice growth” in taxes on sales, income and real property transfers triggered by large sales in the downtown area, she said.

“Intentionally over the last couple of years, we’ve been setting aside a little bit of surplus to form a snow escrow so, when we got to years like this, we’d have a surplus available,” Holt said Friday.

“Snow can be volatile. It changes from year-to-year. Some years are light. Some years are heavy years. We’re going to be fine through the end of the year.”

Chicago is, hopefully, in the final throes of its third-snowiest winter in history, with 79.1 inches and counting at O’Hare Airport and 85.2 inches at Midway. From Nov. 1 through March 10, there have been 23 days of sub-zero temperatures.

Holt was asked whether the $12.9 million in excess snow removal costs would force Emanuel to use any of the proceeds from this week’s $884 million bond issue—or tap into a newly-doubled, $1 billion “commercial paper” program used to tide the city over between bond issues.

“Oh God, no. Absolutely not,” she said.

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