At their first meeting of the new year on January 15, Meaford councillors had some questions for municipal staff about the condition of Meaford's roads in the wake of an extended period of snowfall that began on Christmas Eve and lasted nearly two weeks.
Members of council had been inundated with complaints from residents last week after frigid temperatures rose to above freezing and snow packed onto roads in the municipality turned to slush making driving difficult for many.
“I've been approached by many people, phone calls, visits, Facebook posts, emails, et cetera, and we know that a lot of folks have been unhappy,” Councillor Shirley Keaveney told council. “A lot of folks have been very very upset with the way the roads have been managed.”
Meaford's Treasurer Darcy Chapman, who is also responsible for municipal roads as Director of Infrastructure Management, told council that he felt his roads crew performed well given the circumstances.
“I actually think our crews did a very good job considering the amount of snow we received,” Chapman told council. “If council feels as though there's an issue with regards to how Transportation Services is being managed, then certainly I'm willing to stand here and take whatever criticism is necessary. I would like to note though, and make sure that everybody is aware that as staff, it is not our responsibility, and certainly I take the stand that it is not my responsibility to set priorities, and given that, we are providing services based on the priorities that council has set. So if the public is unhappy, or if council is unhappy, then it is your responsibility as council to change the way we do business.”
Chapman told council that snowplow drivers were on the roads clearing snow on Christmas day from 4 a.m. until 8 that evening, and he said that claims that plows weren't on the roads were unfounded and could be refuted by GPS data. Each municipal snowplow is equipped with GPS devices that track the movements of the vehicles.
“People saying that a plow was not on their road for two or three days is absolutely incorrect,” Chapman told council. “We have hard data from a third party that installed these units on all of our trucks and graders, so that's absolutely incorrect, it just did not happen. We've always met the minimum maintenance standards.”
Chapman also disputed claims that he had been preventing plow drivers from working overtime.
“I know that there is a huge fallacy out there in the public that I'm the guy who won't allow people to work overtime. Between December 24 and January 7, most of our staff booked between 30 and 40 hours of overtime in that two week pay period, so there was a significant amount of overtime booked, because it was a significant amount of snow,” Chapman told council.
Chapman also noted that the sidewalk clearing machine broke down during that period, and without a backup machine in the municipal fleet, sidewalk clearing was delayed until the machine could be repaired.
“If council is willing to approve a $130,000 expenditure, I'm more than willing to have a second machine,” Chapman said.
The Treasurer reminded council that they had approved the use of less salt, which he suggested contributed to the problems when the temperatures rose above freezing.
“Council made the concerted effort to switch from using a lot of salt to using a sand salt mixture, therefore the snow doesn't melt away like it used to. We used to have bare roads in this municipality all the time, we don't anymore, which therefore means you have snow pack. And then when it goes from minus 30 to plus one degree in less than 34 hours that six inches of snow pack is going to break up very quickly and that's why the roads went the way they did,” Chapman told council.
Chapman also noted that neighbouring municipalities had equally bad roads after the melt that took place during the week of January 8.
“All of our roads were in the same horrible condition,” Chapman told council. “I will grant you that the roads were not in good condition, but there is nothing we could have done differently. I can say that because all of our neighbours were doing it the same way, and all had the same issues once the melt came. So, I'm more than willing to do things differently based on the direction of council, but it is at council's direction that we are providing the services now, based on your direction provided a couple of years ago.”
While council did approve changes to the delivery of winter roads control services, they did so after a recommendation from the Treasurer.
In 2015 Chapman presented a proposal to council that would see a period of '30 day challenges' undertaken in the winter of 2016 to test alternative approaches to winter roads control that included revising routes, reducing overtime, and reducing the amount of salt used. Council approved the proposed experimentation, and ultimately approved changes to the provision of winter road control services in the municipality.
In January of last year Chapman told council that while there were some complaints, the changes were effective.
“Based on the changes to past practices by ensuring application rates are adjusted to reflect best practice standards in an effort to avoid over-application of products will save approximately $140,000 per year in salt over a typical winter control season consisting of +/- 80 events,” Chapman informed council in his written report presented to council at their January 23, 2017 meeting. In addition to savings in salt, Chapman said that the optimization of plow routes included a reduction of the number of routes from 13 to 10, and combined with revised scheduling which now sees consistent plow service from 4 a.m. through 11 p.m., has saved even more money.
While Chapman defended the performance of his department some members of council suggested that changes could be made.
“I want to thank you, Mr. Chapman, you're right on the nose about our responsibilities under section 224 of the Municipal Act, it is up to us to set the programs we're going to have, and the policies we have in place. That's our job, and it's our job to determine the level of service, that's our job, and it's our job after you tell us what it will cost, it's our job to determine if we want to spend that money, or we have to go back to the ratepayers and ask them for more,” noted Councillor Tony Bell. “So you're right on. That is something I think that this council needs to grab hold of. We're the ones that are going to set this in place, and if we're going to change it, it's up to us to bring that forward to you folks, and you will do as we direct.”
Bell further said that residents were rightfully unhappy and it will be up to council to find a solution.
“I appreciate the fact that folks have just not been happy with what we deliver when we get an old-fashioned winter storm,” Bell noted. “So, I think it behooves this council to take hold of this particular service and come up with something, where we reexamine this because there are things that we can direct to be done, and the Treasurer will tell us what those costs will be if we ask them to be done. I think we need a session where we can lay things out and say 'if we could do this differently, here's what we'd like to see happen', and allow the Treasurer some time to come back and say what this is going to cost us, because we can put policy in place, we can change what we've got in place.”