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Illinois municipalities counting deep freeze costs

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 8:48 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:06 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – Empty road salt reserves, blown overtime budgets for snowplow drivers and costly repairs to water mains blown apart by ice were just some of the expenses straining municipalities around Illinois during the deep freeze.

It's not a financial calamity, but on Wednesday local authorities were already counting the costs – expecting to have to pinch from other areas of their budgets and put off projects ranging from new road work to the purchase of shiny new manhole covers. Businesses that had to close lost revenue and homeowners had to shell out money for higher heating costs, burst water pipes and other cold weather damage.

On the plus side, the past couple of mild winters offered Illinois a break. And some businesses actually thrived because people who were stranded close to home by the cold and snow shopped local.

But the arctic blast did grind some commerce to a halt. That was evident by the 18-wheelers stranded by snowdrifts on interstates in central Illinois on Monday and Tuesday.

And ice in the Peoria area drastically slowed shipping on the Illinois River, a key artery for moving corn and soybeans, farm supplies like fertilizer and other non-agricultural products, said Michael Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, a trade group made up of shipping firms, agricultural groups and others.

"We think this is short lived and navigation will resume, but we do have a real sensitivity to any navigational disruption this time of year," he said.

If they lasted, some of the delays could be critical on a waterway used to ship things like plane deicing products to Chicago's airports, Toohey said.

In a rural patch of north-central Illinois, the tiny city of Mendota was one of many communities feeling the strain on its local budget.

It already burned through its entire 600-ton state allotment of ice-melting salt three weeks ago and had to order another 200 tons on the open market at about four times the cost, or about $240 a ton. The extreme cold has blown open roughly 40 water mains in recent weeks.

"Costs like that, it's really hard to ever put a figure on it because there's just so much of it," Mayor David Boelk said of the exploding water mains. One big one the other day could cost more than $25,000, he estimated.

That will eat up a big chunk of the water department's $80,000 repair budget.

Boelk said city officials would find ways to amend the budget. He said it was frustrating, though, to see money going into things as unglamorous as road salt.

"I'd much rather spend that on a fixed asset so to speak than a puff of snow that's going to melt away," he said.

Around Illinois, the long-term financial effects probably won't amount to much, University of Illinois economist Fred Giertz said. A blizzard just doesn't do enough damage or last long enough to dent the economy, he said.

A major flood along the Mississippi River in 1993 was very disruptive, he said.

"It was like a really big deal, but after it was over no one could find almost any (major) impacts on the economy," said Giertz, who works at the university's Institute for Government and Public Affairs.

People may not eat out much during the storm, but they will likely head out as soon as they can and indulge, he said. And if someone skips car shopping this week, they'll probably be shopping again when the weather is a little nicer.

"Certainly the last two or three days you'd expect a lot of things to have been down," he said, "[but] it kind of goes away."

In the northern Illinois industrial hub of Rochelle, some businesses had trouble keeping machinery functioning, and fuel gelled up on truck drivers not using winter fuel blends, said chamber of commerce director Peggy Friday. But she did not hear of any plant shutdowns.

Big companies with a presence in Rochelle include Sara Lee Corp. and Del Monte Corp., and Union Pacific Railroad has a large intermodal facility there.

___

Associated Press Writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign.

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