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For local budgets, snow brings avalanche of bills

It's been an expensive white blanket.

Even as the Presidents' Day blizzard dumps its last flakes on New England, mayors from Washington to Bangor are tallying up the costs of one of the worst snowstorms of the past 100 years - and the arithmetic is sobering.

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Cities and states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the snow and replenish supplies of salt and sand for the next possible deluge, which in the winter of '03 seems inevitable.

Retailers, for their part, are extending Presidents' Day sales in hopes of recouping at least some of the money they lost from consumers spending time with shovels instead of in the fashion aisle. And airports are struggling to reopen runways so much of the commerce of the nation can resume.

While there may never be a good time for a megastorm, this one couldn't have come at a worse moment. States are struggling with the worst budget deficits in a half century. Moreover, the economy remains fragile, and even though the lost sales from a three-day weekend won't push the US into recession, they don't help the rebound either.

The most immediate economic impacts, though, are coming at the local level. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for one, estimates it will cost the city about $1 million an inch. Almost 20 inches were on the ground, and city was expecting another inch or two yesterday.

"It is very pretty," says Mr. Bloomberg. "It is also very inconvenient and very expensive."

Indeed, one of the largest impacts is on state and local budgets - many of which are already stretched. "Something like this will have an impact on making sure the states meet their balanced-budget requirements," says Eugene Rose, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Adaptation is also the order of the day for retailers, many of whom had counted on moving leftover winter merchandise on Presidents' Day. But with parking lots full of snow, not cars, the weekend fizzled.

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May Department Stores, which owns Lord & Taylor, Hecht's, Strawbridge's, and Filene's, had to shut down more than 100 of its 440 stores. Wal-Mart shuttered stores in nine states.

"I'm hearing that many retailers are considering ... moving [their sales] to this coming weekend," says Ellen Tolley, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation.

However, the bad weather was good news for some, such as Liquidation.com, which allows companies to sell their excess inventory over the Internet.

As early as last Friday, when bad weather was already in the forecast, Liquidation.com was seeing a 33 to 50 percent increase in business - on top of the surges they've already had because of the faltering economy. By Monday, the company was doing $200,000 worth of business per day. "We have 30 to 40 retailers signing up a day," says Bill Angrick, the company's CEO.

For local businesses, the cost of the white stuff could be measured in dollars and cents. At Ottomonelli Brothers, a Yorkville butcher shop and bakery that's been around for more than 100 years, the whole staff, as well as a crew of extras, were in by 6 a.m. Monday and again on Tuesday. The shelves were stocked with fresh bagels and pastries, and the coffee was steaming. But proprietor Joe Ottomonelli knew very few people would be coming in.

Still, he wasn't fazed. "What we've always done when it snows like this is doubled the staff on deliveries, and it becomes a very exciting day," he says. "People are happy to get milk, eggs, and all of the necessities for their families. And we're happy to serve them. That's what it means to be a family here for more than 100 years."

Yet to provide that kind of service, the store had to put workers up in hotels and hire the extra staff. While the cost was not as high as the million dollars an inch the city estimated it would cost to clean the streets, it still put a dent in the day's profits.

Nearby at the Rose Boutique, all notions of making a buck were lost in the blizzard. The staff also made it in despite the snow, but with no customers, they ended up closing by early afternoon on Monday.

Early Tuesday morning, Rajendra Prathan was out shoveling the snow that had accumulated, and he wasn't very optimistic about business prospects for the rest of the day. "With this weather, nobody buys flowers. It's very, very difficult," he says. "Yesterday, we had only deliveries in a hospital and a hotel. Today, I don't know."

Stacey Vanek Smith contributed to this report.


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