There's no budget for snow? Fudge it!
Winnipeg keeps overspending its snow-clearing budgets, which don't account for urban growth or climate change
The City of Winnipeg overspent its budget for snow-clearing eight times over the past 10 years, despite the city's practice of boosting that budget by inflationary increments during most of those years.
Over the past decade, the cost of removing ice and snow in Winnipeg fell within the budget allocation only twice, in 2008 and 2012.
During this 10-year time frame, the city overspent its snow-clearing budget by an average of $7 million every year and entirely drained a snow-clearing reserve built up for the purpose of covering the cost of snow-clearing during exceptional seasons.
Given that the city always clears the snow, regardless of whether any money remains in the snow-clearing budget, the frequent overspending has city council's new finance chairman mulling a significant increase to the snow-clearing budget for 2018.
"This is a brand-new budget year and this is my first year developing the budget as finance chair. That is something I'll be examining," St. James-Brooklands-Weston Coun. Scott Gillingham said Monday following a finance-committee meeting where public works officials addressed snow-clearing costs for 2016.
Last year, the city budgeted for $33.5 million worth of snow and ice removal and overspent that amount by $11 million, based on a preliminary accounting. The actual snow-clearing budget for 2016 will be known in February, when corporate finance officials produce the final financial status report for last year.
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The 2017 snow-clearing budget is pegged at $33.8 million. That increase of $300,000 is roughly in line with the rate of inflation, but doesn't take into account the growing size of the city, which adds more kilometres to the city's inventory of streets and sidewalks.
Inflationary increases also don't take into account the possibility heavier snow burdens now may be the norm and may even increase as a result of changing climatic patterns.
Winnipeg's winters are expected to become wetter as well as warmer in the coming decades, said Ryan Smith, a climate-change researcher with the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg, citing the aggregate predictions of a series of climate-change models.
"The climate is changing and those normals we've had for the past 30 years can not be expected to be a surrogate for the future," Smith said Monday in an interview.
While winter lows on the Prairies are already significantly warmer than they used to be, winters in this region will remain cold enough in the near future to ensure most winter precipitation remains snow, as opposed to rain, Smith said.
This has policy implications for municipalities such as the City of Winnipeg.
"Snow clearing is very expensive and if you have more snow, that could really blow out those municipal budgets," Smith said.
The prospect of increasing climate variability in an already variable region like the Prairies also has implications for more frequent floods, droughts, forest fires and tornadoes. But severe weather events remain the exception, rather than the norm on the Prairies.
Heavy snowfalls are far more mundane and far more common. As long as the city intends to clear all snow, regardless of the cost, more realistic snow-clearing budgeting will be needed to prevent what seems like an annual year-end scramble to cover snow-clearing costs.