published Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Storms blow $5 million hole in budgets

The storms that whipped Hamilton County with three tornadoes as February gave way to March may cost the county and city governments more than $5 million.

“And that’s not counting individual homeowner damages,” said Bill Tittle, chief of Hamilton County Emergency Management. As of Thursday, he said, about 235 homeowners and business owners had reported private-structure damage.

The city-owned EPB amassed a nearly $4 million repair and overtime tab, said company spokeswoman Lacie Newton.

During the four days that EPB crews toiled to get the lights on for 61,106 homes and businesses, “we had 309 crewmen from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky working in the field to restore power to our customers,” she said.

The storm that caused wind damage throughout the county and dropped tornadoes on Signal Mountain, Red Bank and South Pittsburg left EPB with 125 broken power poles, she said. The blizzard of 1993, which dropped 20 inches of snow at the airport, broke only 87 poles, Newton said.

Tittle and Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said a federal assessment begins this week to see if Tennessee meets the threshold for a federal disaster declaration.

Tennessee’s threshold is about $7.6 million — $1.29 for every resident, according to the federal formula.

Coupled with flood damage in a dozen East Tennessee counties, local and state officials feel confident the assessment will show that the state is eligible for financial help to local governments.

Determining whether individual homeowner damages qualify may be tougher, Tittle said. Forty percent of the home and business damage must be uninsured, Tittle said.

Tallying government costs

Local governments have had to roll with plenty of weather punches in the first two months of 2011.

During January and early February, Chattanooga spent $35,000 for brine and $213,727 in overtime costs to clear snow and ice from roads. The Tennessee Department of Transportation spent $92,000 cleaning roads in Hamilton County.

Last week, Harold Austin, director of Hamilton County’s highway department, estimated his crews amassed $30,000 to $40,000 in replacement asphalt and gravel, as well as overtime hours for road workers clearing roads and setting up barricades after the tornadoes.

During the heavy rain Tuesday night, the county put 60 men on the roads overnight — all on overtime, he said. During clear weather, no road workers are on at night.

Steve Leach, head of Chattanooga’s public works department, said the department amassed 430.5 hours of overtime at a cost of $9,645.

Additional public works post-storm work included collecting more than 185 tons of brush and repairing 50 to 60 damaged traffic lights, he said. Fixing the lights will cost $25,000 to $33,000, according to city officials.

Police budgets also took a hit.

The storm hit Chattanooga just before shift change, and the city held over its first-shift officers even as the second-shift crew came on duty. That added $2,724.43 in overtime, police spokeswoman Sgt. Jerri Weary said.

Such costs are unavoidable, she said.

“Basically, Chief [Bobby] Dodd said that we are operating off of our operational budget, and that overtime pay comes from it, regardless of what happens during the fiscal year,” she said. “We’ll make adjustments during the year to stay within budget, but some things are unavoidable and unforeseeable.”

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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