Urban alchemy: city leaders turn snow to political 'hay'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Boston, it seems, everything is political - even snow. When the season's first snowstorm dumped up to two feet on eastern Massachusetts Dec. 6, Boston's commissioner of public works, Joseph Casazza, called out the plows.

Then, flanked by the city treasurer and the city auditor, he called in the press. ''I want to make it clear that Boston is working under very difficult circumstances,'' he told reporters.

His purpose was to point a finger at the state Legislature, which he blamed for failing to approve a controversial financial plan aimed at hoisting Boston out of its fiscal snowbank. The plan, which has hung fire for months, would let the financially battered city borrow up to $75 million, and would provide some new revenue sources.

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His point: Unless the state legislators (especially the 18 from Boston districts) put aside their dislike of Boston Mayor Kevin H. White and vote for the measure, city streets may go unplowed.

Thus, what began as a simple snowstorm became one more piece of a political chess game.

Boston, however, is not unique. New York's former mayor, John V. Lindsay, angered New Yorkers when his administration failed to dig Queens out after a storm on Feb. 9, 1969. It was a political liability which, some say, dogged him to his defeat in 1973.

And some observers feel that Chicago Mayor Jane M. Byrne was swept into office in 1979 on her predecessor's failure to cope with snow removal. ''You didn't see cars for a week,'' recalls one Chicago resident, who notes that the wards of influential aldermen always seemed the best plowed. Chicago has also been beset by snow removal fraud, involving inflated bills from plowing contractors.

Underlying the politics of snow are two ingredients:

* Money. Snow removal costs dearly. But unlike building construction, it produces nothing lasting. Hence the temptation to gamble - to underfund the budget and hope for a mild winter.

In fact, the last two years here have been relatively snow-free. But in 1978, when the now-famous blizzard slammed into the New England coast, snow removal in Boston cost some $9.3 million. Cleaning up New England cost an estimated $76 million.

* Public awareness. Unlike neglected parks or reduced fire protection, unremoved snow affects rich and poor equally and immediately. And its effect continues until it melts or is removed.

The result: Few things rivet such intense attention on a city's political leadership as an uncleared snowfall.

Then how could unremoved snow benefit Mayor White? Insiders explain it this way:

First, because of the fiscal squeeze, the mayor began cutting. This year's snow removal budget dropped from $750,000 to $320,000.

Then he announced that the city soon would see the results of these cutbacks. With only 417 instead of 993 public-works employees, the city can operate only 61 instead of 110 pieces of equipment.

And when it finally snowed, and the city's snow removal budget was being scraped away at the rate of $30,000 an hour, he let the press knew that next time there might be no money for any plows at all.

Unless, that is, the financial bail-out measure is passed.

Behind his strategy is his hope that residents and commuters alike will rise in dismay and urge their state representatives to approve the bill. The residents, even though the mayor's popularity is at an ebb, would do so because their streets are all aslush. The commuters, even though the bill includes a new tax on parking aimed primarily at them, would do so because they use the streets to get to work.

And if it doesn't work? The mayor, like New York's Lindsay and former Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, could find himself out in the political cold at election time.

But election time comes long after the snow has melted. And, as outgoing City Council president Patrick McDonough remarks, Boston voters sometimes have short memories. A longtime opponent of the mayor, he notes that ''if elections were held in February or March, snow removal would be the most important matter there is.''

''But people in November can't seem to remember that it ever snowed,'' he adds ruefully.

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