Friday, July 12, 2024

Tinkering With Winter Road Maintenance Procedures Could Save a Few Bucks, But Should be Undertaken With Caution

Stephen Vance, Editor

Cut costs, residents said repeatedly leading up to and throughout last year’s municipal election campaign. Cutting costs and fixing our roads are common themes in the council chamber, and this winter, Meaford residents might just get a taste of what cutting costs truly looks and feels like when our roads department begins some tinkering with response times to snow accumulations and slippery road conditions in an effort to more accurately align the level of service with provincially mandated minimum maintenance standards.

For years the Municipality of Meaford has apparently been receiving winter road control service well above the minimum maintenance standards, and now with Meaford’s resident bean-counter at the helm of the department, he plans to experiment with the delivery of winter roads services to see what the impact would be of delivering the service closer to the established minimum standards.

Don’t everybody (especially those who live on roads less-travelled) freak out just yet.

The plan is to test the limits for up to 30-day periods, and the plan is also for the municipality to ensure that residents are well aware of what will be taking place over the course of the winter.

The treasurer will compile the results of what he called “innovation experiments” and provide a report to council that could ultimately result in significant cost savings. Meaford spends more than $240,000 per year on salt and sand alone, for example, and those plow trucks don’t come cheap at more than $275,000 apiece.

These “experiments” could reveal ways to reduce overtime which adds up to some 3,600 hours each year, nearly enough to employ two additional full-time staff year-round. The “experiments” might also teach us that we can do just as well with a little less service, while at the same time cutting those costs that many residents are so concerned about.

While all of that is a fabulous plan, as some members of council pointed out we must also realize that things could go wrong.

Councillor Mike Poetker noted that allowing snow to accumulate to three inches before sending plows out might impact dairy farmers trying to get their milk out for delivery, and other residents might find themselves in a bind also. Poetker asked his fellow councillors to consider what might happen should one of our local first-responders or doctors live on one of those lonely Class 5 or 6 roads and can’t get to where they are most needed due to an un-plowed road.

An unlikely situation to be sure, but then the snags that hurt most in any plan gone wrong are the unlikely-to-happen snags.

The one obvious concern is what if something goes wrong? What if during one of these “30 Day Challenges” as the treasurer referred to them, a serious accident happens on a road that a year prior would have been plowed, but during the 30-day experimentation period had not?

An equally unlikely situation, but if we are begging for cost-cutting, we need to understand potential ramifications. Surely the municipality wouldn’t be at any risk of a lawsuit because they would still be operating within the framework of the provincially established minimum maintenance standards, but which member of the municipal staff, or which councillor, or which resident demanding cost-cutting wants to tell the family of someone involved in a tragic accident that it’s not our fault, we’re doing less than we used to, but we’re still meeting the minimum standard?

A continuous search for potential cost savings is an excellent approach to managing the municipality, and it is exactly what many residents have been begging for over the last several years.

On the one hand, this initiative makes a lot of sense, especially given the mandate to this council by the voters, and the large chunk of the municipal budget gobbled up by snow removal and sanding and salting the roads each winter.

On the other hand, the primary reason for maintenance of roads over the winter months is to keep motorists and pedestrians safe, so while we experiment to see if we can shave a few bucks off the winter road maintenance budget, we should proceed with extreme caution.

And to our councillors – prepare yourselves for an onslaught of phone calls and email messages. As one councillor noted on Monday, Meaford’s councillors will quickly learn who lives on those Class 5 and Class 6 roads.

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