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Mild Weather Warming Local Budgets

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In January of last year, snow blanketed more than 42 percent of the country. Last month, it was just under 13 percent. The warm weather has lowered our heating bills and created a bit of an economic boost.

After two brutally long winters, the temperatures this year have been positively balmy. In the Washington, D.C., area, they've hovered in the 50s for much of the past two and a half months. Area landscapers, whose schedules are usually pretty lean this time of year, are busier. Take Chuck Dod Landscaping, which is building a stone wall in the backyard of a home in McLean, Va.

"Most winters, we just plan for downsizing a bit," owner Chuck Dod says. "Normally, we're down to about 40 or 50 percent capacity. This year, we're running 75-80 percent of capacity."

Thanks to the milder temperatures, Dod says, his office has been fielding more calls.

"I think people are getting out more," he says. "If it was colder, [they] probably wouldn't be walking the neighborhood as much. Normally takes place a month or two later."

Warmer weather also helped bulk up the country's employment rolls in December and January. Construction workers are finding jobs when hiring is normally weak. Andrew Mawhorter is hauling chunks of stone to build the stone wall; he's happy to be on the payroll.

"The ground isn't frozen, so that's always good," he says.

And milder winter weather boosts economic growth in other ways.

"People are out; they're eating out," says Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, which studies the weather's impact on business. "They're going to call restaurants, strip malls, all sorts of places like that — and spending money when they do so."

Bernhardt says many cities are usually busy cleaning up after winter storms. This year, local governments are saving tens of thousands of dollars because the snowplows and salt trucks are in dry dock.

In Chicago, where a single fierce blizzard blew through the snow budget last February, this month has barely put a dent in the city's $20 million snow removal budget — so far, anyway. In Maryland, more than half of the state's 200 or so road construction projects are usually put on hold in the winter. This year, many projects are going forward that would otherwise be shut down

"For example, we have a bridge project," offers Melinda Peters, the head of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "We were able to pour the bridge deck last week. Typically, that's not a winter activity because of temperature constraints."

But the milder weather hasn't been a shot in the arm for everyone. Many retailers are struggling to unload winter merchandise like snow shovels, hats and scarves. Planalytics' Bernhardt says weather becomes important in a dicey economy because people stick to buying necessities.

If people don't need scarves or hats, they don't buy them, he says, and this winter weather is saying don't buy them.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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