The City of Ottawa's slow cleanup after last week's record snowfall had many residents wondering whether the public works department had let its standards slip. That theory was bolstered when Coun. Rick Chiarelli claimed it was true, only to be chastised by some of his colleagues, including transportation committee chair Keith Egli.

It turns out the city has not lowered its standards for removing snow banks or salting roads. Nor has it budgeted less for snow removal.

What has changed this winter is that snow plow and salt truck operators have been ordered to stick to a long-established set of guidelines, after years of going above and beyond them. And their supervisors will be tracking their every move to make sure they do.

In the wake of an especially tough 2016 budget process, every city department is on the hunt for savings. The one in charge of cleaning up after snowstorms is no exception.

After blowing at least two consecutive annual snow clearing budgets, the plan this year is to save $2.5 million by managing crews more closely, without jeopardizing council's "maintenance quality standards" — guidelines that dictate how much salt trucks are supposed to dump on a certain kind of road, or how big a snowbank can get before it must be plowed and hauled away. 

For instance, 'minor collector' roads must have two three-metre wide lanes clear, while most residential roads require a single 2.8-metre lane.

The fact is, it's been the department's practice to exceed those guidelines in some parts of the city, so meeting them shouldn't be too difficult, even as it tries to trim costs.

The problem is, residents have grown accustomed to seeing that plow pass by more often than it was supposed to.

"We've always done better than what our stated policy is," said Catherine McKenney, councillor for the downtown Somerset ward, where narrow streets and busy sidewalks need immediate attention after a big snowfall. "So if we are going back to the stated policy then what people are experiencing is very different from what people have experienced in the past."

Plows, salt trucks where they're needed most

One way the city is trying to economize on winter operations in 2016 is by keeping better track of where plows are needed, to ensure snowbanks that are encroaching onto streets and sidewalks get removed first. In the past, the system sometimes worked on a 'squeaky wheel' model, where residents and business owners who complained saw plows come by sooner than they were supposed to.

"There were times when we overshot the standards for sure," acknowledged Egli. 

The city is also starting to use its salt trucks' GPS units to monitor distribution, and make sure salt isn't being over-applied. Some smaller collector roads, for instance, were receiving as much salt as much bigger, busier roads.

Ken Hughes Ottawa Auditor-General

Auditor General Ken Hughes examined the City of Ottawa's winter operations in a 2015 report. (Kate Porter/CBC)

"Salt is very expensive, and we want to make sure that there's a consistent use of salt throughout the city and we don't overspend on that resource," said Egli.

The roads department is also aiming to rein in overtime and on-call costs.

The city's auditor general flagged just how inconsistent Ottawa's snow operations were in a report last November.

Ken Hughes described the informal methods supervisors use to track their crews, leaving the city with little real-time information to indicate whether service standards were actually being met.

Major review on the way

These measures are mere tweaks compared to recommendations that could come from a major review of winter operations by consultant KPMG due this spring.

For the first time since amalgamation, those maintenance quality standards council set 13 years ago could get a refresh.

"I've certainly said to staff I want to keep the door open to a full review of what we do and how we do it," said Egli.

For example, how does the city's approach to dealing with snow and ice need to adapt as weather patterns change due to climate change? And does the city have the right mix of in-house resources and contractors? 

In his audit, Hughes noted the city owns 73 per cent of the equipment that goes out to maintain roads in the winter. Toronto, by contrast, owns just 14 per cent of its fleet.

Ottawa's service standards are higher than those in many other cities in Ontario. For example, residents of some municipalities are responsible for clearing sidewalks in front of their homes, but that's a service Egli say Ottawa should continue to provide. The KPMG report will compare the cost of maintaining those standards to the cost of meeting basic service levels required by the province.

On a downtown street earlier this week, where pedestrians continued to stumble over snow banks seven days after the Dec. 29 storm, Coun. McKenney said even Ottawa's loftier standards might not be sufficient. 

"If that is not acceptable to people," said McKenney, "then we're going to have to revisit the policy."