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City on hook for $6 million for snow removal at airports

Updated: April 27, 2013 6:19AM



Yet another legal time bomb left behind by former Mayor Richard M. Daley exploded in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lap Monday — and it turns out to be a $6 million snow job for Chicago.

U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle ruled Monday that Chicago must reimburse the federal government for $6 million in snow-removal costs incurred at O’Hare and Midway airports during 1999 and 2000.

After years of claims and counter-claims, Norgle sided with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the dispute over whether the city should be ordered to repay the money.

The claims stem from a 2003 audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

The audit concluded that the city spent $7.8 million on O’Hare and Midway snow removal during those years, that FEMA had reimbursed the city for 75 percent of those expenses and that the city recovered $5.2 million of the money from the airlines, which constituted an “outright duplication” of benefits.

The inspector general further concluded that the remaining $2.6 million also constituted a duplication of benefits because, “The city’s failure to charge the airlines the remainder of the costs did not mitigate the airlines’ contractual obligations to pay these costs, nor diminish the city’s ability to receive payment had they charged the costs to the airlines.”

On Monday, Norgle sided with the federal government. The judge said he is not convinced that national and international airlines can properly be considered “disaster victims due to a snow emergency in Chicago.”

But the larger issue is whether it was rational for FEMA to find that operating and maintenance fees the airlines are required to pay under use agreements with the city can reasonably be construed as duplicate funds under federal law.

“The city leases space at O’Hare and Midway to the airlines. In exchange for taking care of operations and maintenance — ­including snow removal — the city charges the airlines a fee,” Norgle wrote.

“Because the money FEMA paid to the city for snow removal at O’Hare and Midway was covered by the use agreements between the city and the airlines, the court determines that FEMA’s finding of duplicate benefits was a reasonable interpretation” of federal law, Norgle wrote.

The Emanuel administration responded to Monday’s legal setback by stressing that the $6 million settlement, if there is one, will come from airport funds.

“This case was regarding the use of FEMA funds for snow removal at the airport more than 10 years ago. And while the court ruled that FEMA emergency funds could not be used, the court also recognized that the City’s use agreement with the airlines requires them to pay for snow removal costs,” Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew said in a statement.



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