Legislators question state’s snow reimbursement numbers.

Officials from the Department of Transportation told a committee of state legislators Feb. 16 that Delaware spent upward of $8 million cleaning up from the two snowstorms that pummeled the region earlier in February.

Speaking before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks called the storms “tremendously expensive” and said more than 600 state employees worked virtually around the clock from 7 a.m. Feb. 5 through 6 p.m. Feb. 12, at a cost of approximately $3 million.

Wicks also said her department spent roughly $2 million on materials to fight the storms, including 30,000 tons of road salt and fuel for more than 450 pieces of equipment used in the cleanup.
Combined with the $4 million Wicks said the state spent on the pre-Christmas snowstorm, DelDOT is on the hook for approximately $12 million in winter weather costs so far.

The state only set aside $3 million this year in its storm contingency fund, but Wicks said her department will move money around internally to cover the actual costs.

Without getting specific, she said funds could be diverted from both DelDOT’s operating and capital budgets.

She also said Delaware likely will receive funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since the state is asking for a retroactive disaster area declaration.

Wicks’ presentation was part of a hearing on DelDOT’s fiscal year 2011 budget requests, but the discussion turned into a defacto debriefing on the snowstorms.

The committee’s 12 legislators were sympathetic to the Herculean task DelDOT faced, but some members raised questions about the agency’s procedures for doling out snow removal reimbursement money to subdivisions.

Under the reimbursement plan, registered homeowners’ associations that hire independent contractors to plow their streets can receive rebates of up to 75% of their total costs.

Reimbursement amounts are calculated based on the amount of snowfall measured in different regions across the state. The deeper the snow, the more money a homeowners’ association is entitled to.

Wicks reported DelDOT expects to pay out approximately $1.3 million worth of reimbursements for the storms.

But Rep. Joseph E. Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, said he was concerned DelDOT lowballed its snow measurements to avoid paying out more in reimbursements.

Miro found it odd that DelDOT’s measurements never exceeded 19 inches at any of the 12 measurement locations state wide, even though news outlets reported accumulations in excess of 2 feet in some areas.

According to the reimbursement plan, DelDOT’s per-mile repayment obligations jump nearly 27% once snow accumulation tops 20 inches.

“The weather broadcasters indicated 24-plus inches, but nowhere at any of the DelDOT sites did you report more than 20 inches,” Miro said. “It looks suspicious that it never went to the highest level, 20 inches-plus.”

Wicks defended her agency’s snow measurement procedures, noting the measurements are taken by a third party, the University of Delaware.

She also said the measurements are taken on asphalt, which gives a more accurate indication of what plows actually encounter on the roads. However, asphalt stays warmer longer than bare ground or grass, so snow accumulations won’t be as high.

“We certainly are trying very hard to come up with a transparent system of measurement,” Wicks said. “It’s certainly not something we’re trying to rig.”

DelDOT snowstorm costs:
Feb. 5-12 storms: $8-9 million
Dec. 19 storm: $4 million
Storm cleanup budget: $3 million

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com.