Mild winter weather bad for kids, but a boon for Illinois city budgets

December 29, 2011

The Associated Press

(Flickr/Daniel X. O'Neil)
Lincoln Park on Christmas Day.

The same year that brought "snowmaggedon" across much of Illinois is ending with a whimper, weather-wise.

Temperatures are above normal, there's been more rain than snow — and public works directors couldn't be happier. The mild weather has been a boon for cash-strapped cities that have hardly touched their salt supplies or snow-removal budgets.

Despite some dire predictions about frigid temperatures and record snowfall similar to last year's storm that dumped more than 20 inches in Chicago, it's been about 6 degrees warmer on average for much of Illinois so far. The light snow is hardly worth mentioning, meteorologists and municipal officials say.

Across the state, public works directors and streets and sanitation officials are positively giddy when talking about the mild weather, reveling in sunny skies and budget surpluses.

"It's been great," Bloomington public works director Jim Karch said with a laugh. "My kids hate it, our budgets love it."

Bloomington has spent just $8,000 out of its $325,000 winter labor budget, Karch said.

"Many municipalities, including Bloomington, have really seen a lot of dollars of savings," he said. "We're hoping it stays savings over the course of the winter."

Neighboring Normal has spent nearly $2,100 on snow removal so far this season, compared with more than $140,000 at the same time last year, said Scott Dennewitz, street supervisor for the public works department.

"We've just been very fortunate," Dennewitz said.

The National Weather Service is calling for above-average temperatures and more rain than snow, at least through the first week of January, said meteorologist Amy Seeley. But after that, there's little consensus about what winter will bring, she said.

Chicago, which had been forecast to get the brunt of the snow and cold this winter, has gotten a paltry 1.7 inches so far, compared to 8.7 inches in a typical year, Seeley said.

"It's been a little bit underachieving so far to start off the season," said AccuWeather meteorologist Paul Pastelok, who nonetheless stands by his earlier forecast of snow and lots of it. "Just give us some time as far as snow goes."

Chicago has spent $500,000 on snow removal in December, compared with a whopping $6 million last year, said Matt Smith, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. The city has budgeted $20 million for this winter.

"This is almost like Florida," said Tim Hanson, public works director for Rockford, who's ending the year with a $400,000 budget surplus. The struggling northern Illinois city has spent $18,000 on snow removal this December, compared to $1.1 million the previous two Decembers and $2.1 million during the last month of 2008.

The lack of snow and relatively balmy temperatures have meant public works crews in the northern Chicago suburb of Itasca have been able to focus on other field work, including bringing a new wastewater treatment plant online, said Ross Hitchcock, director of public works.

"It could go like this the whole winter as far as I'm concerned," he said.

But good news for municipal budgets is bad news for businesses like Ski Snowstar Winter Sports Park in Andalusia, which has lost 25 percent of its revenue so far this season, said general manager Ed Meyer.

"There's just no making that up," Meyer said.

The northwestern Illinois park usually opens the first weekend of December. But rain and warm temperatures wiped out nearly all of the snow that had been made, and the opening was delayed until Monday. Instead of hiring 200-300 workers in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Meyer had four.

Greg Meffert, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky., considers himself a winter-loving "snowie" who has at times driven to St. Louis just to see a white-blanketed ground.

That's not happening so much this year, he says, because of complicated forecast modeling heavily weighted by La Nina — the cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide — and North Atlantic oscillation. Both, for now, are conspiring against any immediate chances for a winter wonderland.

He calls the North Atlantic oscillation "the trump card," noting that unless that phenomenon changes — and it can on a dime — "we can expect this weather to continue, warmer and wetter than a normal winter." For southern Illinois, that means expected temperatures in the 50s through this weekend.

Everyone agrees anything could happen. Meteorologists certainly aren't ruling out scattered blasts of arctic air from Canada and heavy snowfall.

"We still are a little early into winter, so I wouldn't just call everything off," Meffert said.

After all, the storm that dumped nearly two feet of snow and ice across the state last winter didn't happen until February.

"In Illinois, you never know," Dennewitz said. "The weather changes daily."