Our view: A snowy blast — to city’s pocketbook?A first priority for the city of Duluth, of course, is making sure the streets get plowed and everyone emerges safely from this three-day, welcome-back-to-winter blast of snow and ice.
A first priority for the city of Duluth, of course, is making sure the streets get plowed and everyone emerges safely from this three-day, welcome-back-to-winter blast of snow and ice.
But not far behind are questions about how such a major storm, especially so close to the end of the year, might affect the city’s bottom line. Just how big a hit will there be from all the salt and sand being dumped on the roads, from the wear and tear on pricey heavy equipment, and from plow drivers and others working on overtime?
“This will not bust the budget,” Mayor Don Ness assured the News Tribune Opinion page yesterday. Be thankful the storm hit midweek when city workers already were on the job, and be thankful it didn’t hit over a holiday, which would have meant holiday pay, additional overtime and boosted labor costs.
Just two weeks ago Ness and Duluth Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery, in an interview with members of the News Tribune editorial board, were singing the praises of the city’s bottom line — as long as an expensive major storm didn’t throw the numbers for a loop just before the end of the year.
In 13 days the Duluth City Council is expected to approve a budget for 2014 that should result in a small property tax decrease due to growth in the city’s tax base. Also, city finances are being buoyed by actions of the 2013 Minnesota Legislature, including an expected $1.5 million to $1.6 million increase in Local Government Aid and savings to Duluth and other local units of government from the elimination of some sales taxes. And over at least the past five years the city effectively and impressively has rebuilt its general reserve to 10 percent of its overall budget, a target amount considered financially healthy. What was a $1.6 million deficit in the general reserve in 2008 is now about $7.5 million in the black.
But the general reserve is there for unexpected emergencies. Like all that snow that fell in April, resulting in an unexpected, additional $500,000 of plowing and cleanup costs for the city. Or like this week’s dumping, which is expected to cost — well, we don’t know just yet; the city is still on the making-sure-the-streets-get-plowed-and-everyone-is-safe priority.
But because the storm hit at a time when city workers already were working and didn’t have to get called in and didn’t have to get holiday pay, it shouldn’t be as costly as it could have been. And that’s good — unless you’re Montgomery, Ness or someone else who closely watches the city’s bottom line; then you’re still left watching forecasts and sweating out the remainder of what can be a very expensively snowy month.