BRUCEDALE – Though snow is not forecasted anytime soon, the issue of snow removal dominated the Guelph/Eramosa council meeting on May 23.
Council voted unanimously in favour of a public works request for a 2024 pre-budget approval for a plow truck and sidewalk plow, but not without lengthy discussion – mostly regarding the potential of area rating the costs.
Area rating means analyzing and dividing costs so taxpayers cover services they use, and not services they don’t.
In Guelph/Eramosa, streetlights are an area-rated service, and councillor Corey Woods wants council to consider area rating snow plow removal too.
Public works has been approved to spend up to $200,000 for a new sidewalk plow, but Woods pointed out there are no sidewalks in Wards 1 or 2.
He also said $200,000 is “kind of a shocking price,” but “it is what it is,” as costs for large equipment have been increasing significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Chris White noted although Wards 1 and 2 don’t have sidewalks, they do “have some really long country roads that have one house on it that’s maintained by the whole township,” while some streets in other wards “have 40 houses.”
While most country roads in the township don’t have sidewalks, they do have less taxpayers per kilometre of road plowed by trucks like the new tandem axle.
Meaning overall, snow plow services involve “a give and take” between different areas of the township, White said.
To keep up with plowing roads, the budget includes $404,000 for a Western Star 47X tandem axle plow truck that will be delivered early in 2024. The price includes licensing and outfitting with plow equipment and cameras.
Niemi said Viking-Cives Ltd. offered the truck at 2022 pricing, an offer too good to pass up, noting other municipalities in Wellington County have been paying between $420,000 and $440,000 for trucks this year.
The truck will replace one that has been in service for 13 years.
Public works director Harry Niemi said payment for the new snow plows will have “zero impact to taxation,” as the cost will be covered by the department’s equipment reserve.
Clearing all sidewalks
Niemi pointed out the township has an obligation through the provincial minimum maintenance standards (MMS) to clear all sidewalks.
“And if they aren’t, then that liability goes against the whole township …” he said,
“So the benefit of the taxpayer in Ward 1 or 2 is protecting the township on a whole from any liability arising from our potential inability to keep them cleared.”
Niemi said there were “a few occasions” this winter that multiple plows were unusable at the same time, due to mechanical issues, causing some “hiccups” to snow removal.
Councillor Bruce Dickieson noted in other municipalities like Guelph, only certain sidewalks are plowed and homeowners on side streets are expected to remove snow themselves.
Niemi said this is because some municipalities have bylaws requiring property owners to clear the sidewalks.
“I don’t know how enforceable it is,” he added. “It’s still a municipal sidewalk.
“My interpretation of the way the MMS is, is it’s our duty to do it – we can’t really download that on to the resident.”
Woods noted he doesn’t think sidewalk snow removal bylaws in other municipalities are legal.
“If it’s the township’s property, how can you have a bylaw that somebody else has to plow it?” he wondered.
Area rating services
Woods said he completely understands “the sidewalks need to be plowed,” and is not arguing against approving the new snow plows.
The issue, he said, is “how do we pay for it?”
White called that question “reasonable and fair,” but noted it would involve a broad analysis far beyond the scope of the council meeting that day.
“You can’t just pick out this plow,” White said.
“Without doing a full analysis of the things people might not be using that they’re paying for.”
White suggested councillors discuss the issue of area rating services while they work on strategic planning items, but warned, “I think it’s a dangerous slope.”
He said once all the factors are considered, it’s possible taxpayers within Rockwood are subsidizing the costs of those living in more sparsely populated areas of the township.
“If you want to area rate something, we have to be fair and look across the board,” he said – and “we may be surprised.”
In White’s opinion, things are working well without area rating services like snow removal.
“It’s almost like the county to some degree, or even the country,” he said.
“It’s a federation. Not everybody gets everything – some things are spread out.”