Hill Agencies Still Tallying Snow’s Costs

Posted February 12, 2010 at 5:29pm

As the snow recedes from Capitol Hill and staffers slip back into a normal work schedule, Congressional officials are calculating the cost of snow removal, overtime shifts and lost productivity.

For most agencies, that cost seems to be minimal. Many employees were able to work from home, and delayed projects can be picked up this week during Congressional recess.

But the onslaught of snow ostensibly ran up a high bill for the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police. Although neither agency was able to provide a concrete number, AOC employees worked at all hours to clear snow from the paths and roads around the Capitol, while the police department provided hotel rooms to some officers for almost a week.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the total cost was not yet available but confirmed that the department had to pay overtime, hotel and food costs to ensure that officers were guarding Congressional buildings 24 hours a day. Hotels near Capitol Hill generally cost $100 to $200 a night.

The AOC, however, denied that the cost of removing piles of snow from the campus — which included hundreds of employees sometimes working into the night — went beyond the agency’s current budget.

“Our work throughout the two blizzards over the past week is part of our mission-related work to care for the Capitol complex, so it is included in our operating budget,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said in an e-mail.

On Friday, Malecki added that crews were removing “large piles of snow” ­— a task she said was made easier by “the sunshine and above-freezing temperatures.” But she did not respond to further questions about where the AOC found the money to pay for snow removal, especially when the agency is facing more than $1 billion in unfinished maintenance work.

Tom Fontana, spokesman for the Capitol Visitor Center, said AOC workers “did a really Herculean effort to make sure all the pathways were clear.” As snow piled on top of the underground CVC ­— which has skylights on the Capitol’s East Front — workers were able to ensure it never piled too high, he said.

Though closed all week, the CVC opened on Friday. And while some money was lost by closing the gift shops and the cafeteria, the effect was minimal, Fontana said.

“Fortunately, it’s a very slow period for us, averaging only about 2,000 to 3,000 people a day,” he said. Senior staff were also able to work at home, he said, ensuring that administrative work could still be done.

Jeff Ventura, spokesman for House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, also said that employees were able to work from home this week. The office, he said, probably spent less than it does on an average week simply because services were so limited as the House came to a standstill.

But some services will take a few days to get back on track. The CAO is faced with a backlog of mail to Congressional offices, for example, and the House’s food supply has dwindled. Cafeterias thus opened for only limited hours, and employees got creative with ingredients in order to offer a few hot and grilled items, breakfast and sandwiches.

Still, the desperation of some staffers was evident last week. On Thursday, sparse vending machines in the Capitol basement told the tale of a run on the cafeteria hours earlier. Only a microwaveable Big AZ Country Fried Chicken Breast sandwich and Tony’s pizza remained. Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Tropicana Fruit Punch were sold out. There was ample Coca-Cola.

This week, food deliveries should return to normal, said Mary Bowman, regional director for Restaurant Associates, which runs the House and Senate cafeterias. But she declined to discuss whether the cafeterias’ limited operations will affect RA’s bottom line.

“It’s been quite a crazy week; we’re so proud of associates who’ve made every effort to be on the job and keep the café open,” she said in an e-mail. “Their dedication is commendable, and really that is where we would like to focus.”

Most Congressional employees, however, worked from home. At the Government Accountability Office, analysts remotely signed in to the agency’s computer network from home and, among other things, were able to complete the two reports due to Members this week, spokesman Charles Young said. Costs were not a “major issue,” he said, as only trees were damaged on the agency’s property.

At the Library of Congress, spokesman Matt Raymond estimated that the snow closures accounted for as much as 133,000 hours of potentially lost productivity. The LOC was closed for about 38 work hours last week, he said, but since many employees telecommuted, “the actual loss of productivity would be significantly less.”

“Although the Library didn’t incur any extra costs as a result of the storms, there was a loss of productivity due to most employees being unable to report to work during almost an entire week,” he said in an e-mail. “However, this would be impossible to quantify in terms of dollars with any degree of reliability or specificity.”

He added: “The true loss resulting from the winter storms is that of access to the Library’s many public spaces, an important loss to the public taxpayer, which is not measurable in financial terms.”

The Government Printing Office had more concrete costs to pay in order to bring in more than 200 employees to finish the 2010 Economic Report of the President. Because the storm was declared an “emergency situation,” the GPO paid those employees double for the first eight hours of the day and then time and a half for the hours after that, spokesman Gary Somerset said.

Somerset said he didn’t have exact figures on the extra cost, but he said the GPO will be able to cover it. In the long term, however, the additional cost will be factored into future printing rates for Congress and federal agencies.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.