How much will the Blizzard of 2016 cost Philly?

Cleanup and overtime costs for the record 31-inch blizzard of 1996 were about $14 million — so just consider what that would be if you add inflation.

Snow Blizzard 2016
Instagram via @chuckseye

Last weekend, Philadelphia’s 2,575 miles of streets were inundated with 22.4 inches of snow, the fourth-highest total on record. And before it’s all said and done, this nearly record-breaking Blizzard of 2016 is going to cost Philadelphia a ton of money.

Around $20 million, actually.

This estimate is based on a 1996 audit and overtime costs during months of other major blizzards provided to Billy Penn by the City Controller’s office. Back in 1996, Philadelphia had its worst snowstorm in history. About 31 inches of snow was dumped on the city, slightly more than this storm dropped. The cost to the Streets Department was $11.3 million. Overtime costs that month, excluding the Streets Department because its total cost for the entire cleanup was calculated separately, were about $2.5 million more than the average for others months that winter. Take the total of about $14 million and account for inflation, and the sum is more than $20 million. Oh, and add $300K because the PPA purchased six new Bobcat vehicles this week to deal with snow pickup.

The difference between a winter with an average or below-average amount of snow and one major blizzard is staggering. The Controller’s Office found the average annual cost to the Streets Department for snow cleanup was $2.9 million from 1986 to 1995. One of the years was as low as $1.3 million and one was as high as $7.4 million. The 1996 blizzard cost the Streets Department five times as much as the annual average for just one storm. Last week’s snowstorm could produce a similar multiple.

Another part of the total snow cost will be overtime. Sometimes, Philly’s biggest snowstorms have led to exorbitant overtime costs, according data pulled by the Controller’s Office from Philly’s financial accounting system. We’ve had these massive blizzards: January 6-8, 1996 (31 inches), February 16-17, 2003 (18.7 inches), December 19-20, 2009 (22.3 inches) and February 5-6, 2010 (22.5 inches). The months in which those snowstorms took place featured city overtime costs — excluding the Streets Department’s overtime  — an average of 1.64 times higher than the winter months that didn’t feature similar massive snowstorms. Here’s how that looks in real dollars:

Snow overtime
City Controller Alan Butkovitz's Office

While overtime costs were actually lower in the big snowstorm month of February 2003 than other months that winter, they were $10 million higher in the big snowstorm month of December 2009 than in the month that followed.

If you think those overtime and cleanup costs are bad, just know it could be a lot worse. The New York City Comptroller’s Office has estimated the city spends $1.8 million for each inch of snow that falls on the city.

Besides, wasn’t Philadelphia better prepared to deal with a blizzard compared to 1996? You’d think so but not necessarily. Part of the City Controller’s Office’s audit of the 31-inch snowstorm included recommendations for dealing with heavy snowfalls in a faster, more cost-effective matter. The city managing director pretty much shot down the recommendations in part because he considered the huge 1996 blizzard similar to the one we experienced last week “an unprecedented natural disaster that is unlikely to occur again.”

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