Snow is heavy but cleanup costs are light for county

Back-to-back storms last week caused local residents a great deal of inconvenience. But at least it looks like they won’t cost them a lot of their hard-earned tax money.

According to local officials, county expenses were actually quite low. The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for clearing all of the county’s roads, and parking lots in the courthouse area are handled by trustys from the local jail. “The most substantial cost in an event like this is the money you spend on overtime,” explains County Administrator John McCarthy.
Most of that comes out of the sheriff’s office, and so far the actual amount involved hasn’t been determined. “Some of it we can work out by giving comp time over the next few weeks,” continues McCarthy, “and some of it we’ll have to pay as pure overtime. We probably won’t have a handle on all that until about March 1, and part of it depends on whether we have any more weather events in the coming weeks.”

There will also be costs for disposables, such as fuel. And, the county fire departments also incurred a lot of expense for fuel, as well as feeding volunteers as they responded to calls. “We owe a lot to those people,” says McCarthy.

“All in all, my estimate — and at this point, it’s little better than a guesstimate — is that all of that put together will come out somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000,” McCarthy says. “That’s pretty modest, all things considered.”

The county’s public schools, the other significant part of the jurisdiction’s budget, spent no real extra money at all due to the storms, reports superintendent Bob Chappell. Snow removal is handled by district personnel, and like the other county departments, the schools try to ameliorate any overtime expenses through comp time.

Chappell says there may be some actual overtime payments this time around, but that it was more than worth it. “The snow removal crew — the bus shop supervisor, our mechanic and our four custodians — do a wonderful job,” he says.

One additional expense, reports McCarthy, was opening the high school as a warming shelter. However, this was done with volunteers and food the county already had on hand. The only added cost was hiring some loader operators to make sure a path was made clear to get in.

As it turns out, the shelter wasn’t really needed, says county Emergency Services Coordinator Richie Burke. It was opened for two days during the second storm, but nobody came to take advantage of the service. So, Burke closed the shelter each afternoon, allowing county staff and volunteers to go home.

“We ultimately decided to handle any issues that came up on a case-by-case basis,” reports Burke. “We evacuated one family near Amissville with a small infant and no heat or power, and found a place for them to stay at a local bed and breakfast.”
McCarthy estimates the cost of opening the cost of opening the warming shelter as no more than $2,000.00. Burke says that while he hasn’t seen all the numbers yet, they may come to significantly less than that amount.

Modest as these amounts might be, much of this cost may actually be recouped. Burke, consulting with McCarthy, declared a local emergency on Saturday, Feb. 6. In company with other governors around the region, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell had already made a declaration on the state level before the first storm hit, and these actions pave the way for reimbursement should the president make a federal disaster declaration.

“Whatever we can charge back to a disaster declaration, we’ll do it,” says McCarthy. “And, that will include a lot of the fuel and overtime costs, and whatever consumables were used up. We’re totaling up those numbers now, and hope to submit it to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) for reimbursement.”

Burke says the back-to-back storms were a real test of the county’s emergency response plan, and, more important, of its emergency response personnel. In the end, he says, both came out okay.

“These last two storms back-to-back really strained our services, in terms of being able to get to people and responding to calls,” says Burke. “I think we ran 52 calls for service through the height of the storm, between fire and rescue and welfare checks. But, we managed to handle all the calls for needed services. And, we didn’t have to bring in the National Guard, like almost all the other surrounding jurisdictions.”

He adds that the emergency response plan is required by law to be rewritten every four years, and they were already in the process of doing that. So, the experiences of the past couple of weeks will help to inform that process. “You always learn things in different events,” says Burke. “After all, a plan is only a plan, something to give you a footprint to start out with.”

“But, I think it’s important to remember that people also have to plan for themselves,” Burke continues, “Because sometimes there are places we just can’t get to. And in this case, people had four or five days notice that the storm was coming. I’m hoping this will be a learning experience on both sides.”

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