A blizzard of budgeting

While the 2010 election is over eight months away, in sitting here watching the snow come down yet again this gives me an insight on writing a relevant post; one about the role of government.

One thing we expect for our tax dollars is snow removal, but this fickle and historic succession of snowstorms will certainly strain budgets in the affected counties and states. I’ve lived in Maryland for six winters now and some of them had less snowfall in toto than we’ve had in the last two weeks. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 2 feet or more of snow in the backyard, and obviously that makes clearing highways a dicey process, let alone running a plow on the side roads.

Yet my fear is that we overcompensate next year and expect more storms of the century in the budgetary process. Certainly many scientists see us entering a long-term period of cooler weather than we’ve come to expect, but it’s highly unlikely that the winter of 2010-11 will see our area become ground zero for winter storms again. A manner of comparison can be drawn with hurricane seasons – some seasons Florida is hit hard, sometimes it’s the Texas Gulf Coast, and at times the Outer Banks seem to be in the crosshairs. Last year we even had the variation of an eerily quiet hurricane season.

But these storms have also proven that we can’t simply count on government to bail us out.

I have good friends who live in rural Delaware, and last weekend’s storm meant they had to do without power for the better part of two days. Obviously part of their issue was being in such a remote location, but the utility claimed they couldn’t get their trucks onto their road because it wasn’t plowed. As it turned out, the government didn’t plow their road – a local farmer did. (More importantly, the farmer helped the community by bearing the cost himself for the gas and use of his tractor.)

On a larger scale, allocation of a finite amount of resources is a tricky thing. Ask someone who was looking for a snow shovel this week whether they wished they’d purchased one a month ago and the answer would likely be yes. But, based on the experience of previous winters people felt no need to invest in a snow shovel. They do invest in bread, milk, and toilet paper on a usual basis, though,┬ábut you’d never know that with the panic buying which has occurred over the last couple weeks.

However, it is easier for private enterprise to find scarce resources than it is for a bureaucracy to do so – that Titanic is much more difficult to turn around once the course is reset. It’s for this reason I’ve often opined that there are a number of services which may work out better if done by the private sector than the public sector, and snow removal is one. No, it’s not foolproof and there is the possibility of corruption in awarding such a contract as opposed to having county or state workers do that job in addition to other tasks, but I think it’s worth exploring due to the obviously cyclical example of weather.

It also goes without saying that next winter may see a slew of entrepreneurs who will see the booming business private snow removal has done over the last month and hope to cash in next year.┬áThis could make the price of snow removal via private contractor more attractive – so why not consider the option?

One other thought occurs to me as I listen to the news of several roof collapses affecting poultry farmers.

With the difficulty these businessmen have had in erecting new chicken houses because of EPA regulations, will the damage from this storm hasten the long, slow decline of the poultry industry Delamarva is enduring? The industry is supposedly moving south already, so this storm just may be a fatal blow to some growers.

These chilling thoughts aren’t exactly the type preferred to get through what’s become a historically rough winter, but we as a region need to ponder them since we have little else to do as we’re buried farther in snow today.