Snowless Chicago Winter Feeds Budget While Fueling Murder RateElizabeth Campbell and Brian K. Sullivan
Snow is serious business in Chicago, where the failure to handle it once drove a mayor from office. Now, a record 329 days without an inch of the white stuff has the current mayor counting mixed blessings -- savings from idled salt trucks and a higher murder rate from warmer weather.
The last time the third-largest U.S. city had an inch of snow on the ground for 24 hours straight was Feb. 24, “making this the longest stretch of its kind on record in Chicago,” according to the National Weather Service.
The city doesn’t yet know just how much it will save in its $20.3 million snow budget from last year. In part that’s because it’s in uncharted territory, said Sarah Wetmore, vice president and research director at the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that tracks government finances.
“There’s never been this little snow since the beginning of records in Chicago,” Wetmore said in a telephone interview. “We don’t know how much money we’re going to save.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed a $298 million deficit last year with budget cuts, dismissals and other measures.
Another measure is certain. The city’s murder rate spiked 66 percent in the first quarter of 2012, when temperatures were 30 percent above normal and snowfall was 30 percent below average. Unseasonably mild weather sends more people outdoors, helping to trigger more violence, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said in an interview.
“Nice weather will put more people on the street, which will create more opportunity for crime to occur,” McCarthy said, noting that murders were up 16 percent for the year. “The opportunity is limited when you have a foot of snow. There’s not a causal relationship with weather and crime. It’s merely an influencer.”
Those who make a living keeping snow off the streets also are feeling the impact.
“We’ve been in business for over 25 years -- we’ve never seen something like this,” said Henry Runge, 54, the owner of Chicago Snow Removal Services. “I guess global warming. Hello! We’re just hoping for snow.”
Municipalities from Cleveland to Milwaukee are shoveling extra money into city coffers. Cleveland had 67 percent of normal snowfall in 2012 and $1.2 million unused in its salt account. Milwaukee expects about $1.5 million left over from the last year’s snow budget, said Paul Klajbor, the city’s administrative services manager. It had 13.1 inches below normal.
In Chicago, snowstorms can have political consequences. Michael Bilandic, who became mayor of Chicago after Richard J. Daley’s death in 1976, lost his Democratic primary in 1979 to Jane Byrne after his administration bungled the Chicago blizzard in January of that year.
The current snowless streak in Chicago, notorious for its frigid winters, is unprecedented. Given that nearby cities such as Indianapolis and St. Louis have gotten snow, forecasters said Chicago’s weather may simply be a fluke.
“It is really an incredible thing that we have got this far, but then again it doesn’t come down to anything else but dumb luck,” said Richard Castro, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the Chicago suburb of Romeoville. “That is just the way things work out sometimes. It is just the weather doing what the weather wants.”
Chicago’s trucks spread about 100,000 tons of salt last winter compared with about 260,000 the season before, said Dominic Salerno, deputy commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation. They’ve used about 8,000 tons of salt so far this winter. While “cautiously optimistic” about savings in 2013, Salerno said it’s only mid-January.
“We’ve got some winter to go,” he said. “I hope this trend continues, but you can’t bank on that happening. It’s weather after all.”
The mild temperatures have created at least one fiscal drawback for the city. Less heating demand lowered the city’s tax collections on utilities. Chicago’s natural-gas tax revenue was forecast to come in 18 percent below budget for the first three quarters of 2012, according to the city’s budget report.
The same pattern across the U.S. depressed natural-gas prices. Futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell 5.9 percent in December, the biggest monthly slide since August.
Chicago saw 7 inches of snow last year during the warmest winter on record in the 48 states, according to the weather service. The city normally receives 14.3 inches every season.
So far this year, 1.3 inches of snow has fallen, with temperatures remaining relatively mild. On Dec. 31, the temperature finally dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (O Celsius), ending a 310-day streak and setting a record. Previously, the longest period without a subfreezing weather was 308 days, ending on Dec. 15, 1878.
While Chicago isn’t saying yet how much it has saved from the snowless streak, officials in other cities said the amount isn’t insignificant in this era of government austerity.
The city of Cleveland had about $1.2 million left over from its $3 million salt fund last winter. The extra money went back into the general fund, said Michael Cox, the city’s director of public works, who has worked for the city for 40 years and has never seen the weather so mild.
“Every little bit helps,” Cox said.