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City gets 4,000 complaints a year about snow and ice

Late-night phone complaints are answered by a janitor

Last year, the City of Sault Ste. Marie retained Brian Bourns, an Ottawa-based municipal consultant, to find ways to reduce the cost of winter road maintenance.

Bourns has worked a quarter century as a senior manager for KPMG LLP, a full-service audit, tax and advisory firm.

Before that, he spent 11 years as an Ottawa city councillor.

He's done similar snow-and-ice control studies for places like Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and St. John’s.   

His Maclaren Municipal Consulting practice recently found some ways to tweak our winter maintenance costs.

But Bourns isn't recommending we spend less.

To the contrary, he thinks Sault Ste. Marie needs to spend more.

"Overall, we would suggest that you need to be increasing the budget by at least $580,000 in order to get back in line with actual costs, on average, over the years," Bourns told city councillors last week.

The annual amount spent for winter control in the Sault can vary wildly, depending on weather.

In 2021, we spent just $6 million.

In 2019, we shelled out $8.9 million.

"It should be adjusted each future year to recognize inflation," Bourns said in a densely packed 41-page audit report on Sault Ste. Marie's winter operations.

The full report wasn't presented to city council before last week's vote on his recommendations.

Councillors saw only an executive summary and Bourn's verbal presentation.

They voted to refer the consultant's report to city staff for review.

His spending recommendations will be brought back to council for a final decision.

But the full report, tucked away on the city's website on a shelf full of budget and financial statements, provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a city operation often taken for granted, or cursed when we find a snowplow has filled our driveway with heavy snow and ice.

103 full-time, year-round employees

More than 100 city employees work full-time keeping our streets serviceable in winter.

Well, there are supposed to be 103 full-timers, if only we could keep those jobs filled all the time.

Bourns found the city's winter maintenance team is chronically understaffed because of an unnecessarily long hiring process.

It's currently down six staff members.

"The recent spring/summer competition which involved approximately 60 applicants resulted in one hire due to a variety of reasons including lack of qualifications, timing of offer, higher wages elsewhere, etc.," he says.

"The process takes several weeks, with a review of applications, then testing, then interviewing, and then coming to a decision on hiring."

"For people from out of town, the need to make repeated visits to Sault Ste. Marie for testing and interviewing is a disadvantage."

"For those who are unemployed, the process takes so long most will find something else in the meantime. They cannot remain unemployed for two months or longer."

"The city also faces competition from the steel plant which is currently expanding operations and hiring. Although employment is less secure than it is with the city, the mill pays much more and grants bonuses based on profitability, which have recently been higher than most operators make in a winter," Bourns says.

The Sault's 103 roads maintenance staff are full-time, year-round employees, although a quarter of them are laid off each spring, usually for five to eight weeks.

Multiple studies

Numerous city-commissioned reports have been prepared in recent years on snow and ice removal.

KPMG did one in December 2019, identifying a million dollars in possible savings if the Sault lowered its levels of service to those used by other northern Ontario municipalities.

City council agreed to cut the 2021 winter maintenance budget by half a million dollars, and also asked for a review of levels of service.

Later in 2021, councillors reviewed that report but failed to approve any service level reductions.

The latest review didn't revisit the levels-of-service question, but focused instead on finding efficiencies within the service levels that Saultites are accustomed to.

Ontario's most severe winter weather

Long story made short, Bourns concludes we get really rough winters here.

"Sault Ste. Marie has an average of 320 centimetres of snow. It's not quite as high as St. John's, Newfoundland and Quebec City, but it's up amongst the highest levels of snow in any city in Canada," he told city councillors last week.

"This largely is the result of the lake-effect snow and more recently the rain, because of your location at the eastern end of Lake Superior."

Ontario's Ministry of Transportation maintains a provincial winter weather severity index.

"Sault Ste. Marie and the area around Sault Ste. Marie comes out as the highest of any other municipality," Bourns says.

Based on historic extremes, it's possible the Sault could get as much as 60 centimetres of snow in a single day, with accumulations as high as 140 centimetres.


And then there's the matter of microclimates – little pockets of atmospheric conditions that differ from those in surrounding areas.

"You do have three different microclimates within the city," Bourns says.

This becomes an issue when scheduling winter control work shifts.

The rule in Sault Ste. Marie is that snow plows hit the residential streets after five centimetres of snow has fallen.

But what do you do if it isn't snowing everywhere within the city limits?

"You may achieve that at different times in each of the microclimates," Bourns says.

"In fact, you may have circumstances where you have snowfall in one of the areas and not in the rest of the city."

How the Sault handles snow and ice 

The City of Sault Ste. Marie has 103 operators dedicated to winter maintenance. 

One group has four shifts doing salting and sanding 24/7.

A second group handles plowing, sidewalk maintenance, snow removal, hand work and pothole patching.

The second group has two shifts working five-day weeks plus overtime when there are weekend snow events.

These crews usually have city-owned vehicles.

The city operates:

  • eight sanders
  • five 'combos' (plow trucks that also can sand)
  • 10 plow trucks
  • eight graders (one leased)
  • 11 loaders (four leased)

"The sidewalks are maintained by 'trackless' vehicles which can articulate (bend) in the middle," Bourns says.

"There are 18 road plow routes, some plowed by the trucks and some by the graders. The loaders focus on clearing bus stops, laneways and other tight spaces."

When they plow

The city aims to plow and sand arterial and collector streets within 12 hours, and to have all streets done within 24 hours of the end of an event.

Streets are usually plowed at night when the parking prohibition is in force from Nov. 1 to April 30, from
midnight until 6 a.m.

Sand and salt may be applied 24 hours a day.

Salt is applied at a rate of 132 to 200 kilograms per lane kilometre, but is not used if the temperature is below -18C.

Sand is applied at at 200 to 700 kilograms per lane kilometre.

Snow may be removed to maintain sight lines at intersections, to ensure safe roadway widths and drainage, and access to downtown parking.

About 209 of the city's 356 kilometres of sidewalks are also maintained in the winter.

They are plowed within 24 hours after the snow stops, as are bus stops. 

Bike lanes are not maintained in winter. They are used for snow storage.

4,000 complaints a year

The City of Sault Ste. Marie has a 24/7 phone line to answer public works calls.

"There is a janitor who works the overnight shift and answers calls when they come in," says Bourns.

"There are about 4,000 complaints per year, although the numbers have been lower for the last two winters. Snow removal, including complaints about windrows across driveways, are the largest source of complaints."

Most of those complaints about ice and heavy snow plowed into the ends of driveways are rejected because the windrows are less than two feet.

The two-foot rule

"The city indicates both in its policies and its publications that it will remove windrows that cross driveways when the windrows result from snowpack scraping and exceed two feet (.6m) in height," Bourns says in his report to the city.

"Implementation of this policy is very challenging for homeowners to understand, as they generally do not have the ability to measure the windrow and don’t understand the difference between windrows that result from scraping and windrows that result from ordinary plowing."

Bourns describes the policy as difficult, costly and inequitable, and calls for its elimination.

"Every call requires a visit by supervisors to determine if the windrow is more than two feet high and is the result of snowpack scraping."

Instead, he says the city should pay the Red Cross or some other third party to help low-income elderly or disabled individuals who are unable to clear driveway windrows.

"I will disagree with you there on that point," said Ward 4 Coun. Marchy Bruni.

"I believe the two-foot rule should be totally eliminated and the end of the driveways should be cleaned by city staff."

"We are an aging population. A lot of seniors do have difficulties," Bruni told Bourns.

Susan Hamilton Beach, the city's director of public works, told last week's council meeting that the two-foot rule has only been applied when the city has scraped roadways.

"Unfortunately that's not understood clearly. We do get regular calls after just a heavy snowfall," Hamilton Beach said, adding: "It becomes a very difficult and unfair practice, overall."

What Bourns is recommending

Bourns says the easiest way to cut our winter costs would be to quickly expand the combined plowing and salting/sanding of arterial and collector roads.

"Short term the city could establish a brine-making facility, acquire a tank trailer or a tank to mount on a plow truck to test the anti-icing approach on various types of roads and in various types of weather," he says

"In the short term it can also investigate the options to acquire calcium chloride or magnesium chloride which can operate these programs at lower temperatures."

"Normally we would suggest the budget be based on the 10-year average plus inflation to provide an adequate budget for the future. If the budget continues to provide full funding for all established positions, future budgets need to be increased in some other amount."

The following is Bourns' summary of recommendations to the City of Sault Ste. Marie:

  • that a salt and sand pre-wetting program be piloted, understanding the full implementation will require some time
  • that an anti-icing program be initiated
  • that a brine station be installed as soon as possible. It will be required even if the lower temperature chemicals are eventually acquired
  • that calcium-chloride or magnesium-chloride supplies and storage systems be investigated
  • that new salt/sand trucks be ordered with pre-wetting capacity (and capacity to carry front plows and wings)
  • that the current and subsequent winters be used for experimentation when materials can be assembled, even if the program is limited to the use of brine. The test would look at the potential of pre-wetting by spraying materials before loading, and for anti-icing distribution before an event to improve service levels and make it easier to plow roadways. It may be possible to test the use of anti-icing application on residential streets with a view to improving the scraping process and easing the removal of snowpack
  • that the approach to selection of sidewalks to be maintained be continued, and if pressure to increase sidewalk maintenance continues, be augmented by a criterion related to pedestrian volumes on the sidewalks of concern
  • that the sand pile be covered with tarps, weighted to resist wind removal, and the tarps be removed to expose enough sand for the next event(s)
  • that the “two-foot rule”, and any associated policy or program to remove windrows after scraping or after plowing be eliminated
  • that funding be considered to provide a grant be provided to a suitable third party to be distributed to low-income persons incapable of removing windrows
  • that the fleet department initiatives of implementing a fleet management information system changing the charge-out approach and advancing the purchase of replacement vehicles be implemented, with implementation over time as required
  • that enough combos be acquired with the capacity to distribute materials in front of the rear wheels, pre-wet the materials, mount front plows and wings and serve as dump trucks for snow removal and summer use be acquired, and that all new salt trucks have pre-wetting capacity
  • that trucks (with operators) continue to be rented for snow removal when economic, and part of the increased budget be allocated for this purpose, based on average expenditures before COVID
  • that the department work with corporate human resources to improve and accelerate the hiring process
  • fleet budgeting should be revised to have fleet target a break-even status and charge realistic rates for the use of equipment. This may require some time to achieve
  • the winter control reserve fund should remain in place. It should be recognized that winter control expenditures relate strongly to weather conditions, which are unpredictable
  • the budget for winter control activities (including street-sweeping in the spring) should be increased recognizing the average deficit of $580,000 in the past nine years. It should be adjusted each future year to recognize inflation, and any further increase in the lane kilometres of roads and sidewalks maintained, unless they are maintained on a cost-recovery basis
  • within this amount, allocations should be realistic, particularly the allocation of costs to sidewalk clearing and hired equipment

Bourns also suggests the Sault may wish to try out the $46,000 Raiko snow/ice pack breaker shown in the Minnesota Department of Transportation video shown at the top of this article.

Its distributor says the device is currently being used in the Michigan Sault and at some Ministry of Transportation locations in Ontario.

Bourns also suggests looking at vehicle-mounted road sensors that monitor pavement surface and subsurface temperature, presence of road salt, possibility of frost or snow film, and estimated freezing point of the road surface.

What's next?

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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