The City of Ottawa ran a deficit in its winter operations budget in 2015 for the fourth year in a row.

It spent $67.4 million to clear snow and apply salt to roads and sidewalks in 2015, $7.6 million more than what it budgeted, according to final figures for 2015 spending.

Just months into the calendar year, staff knew the city would end up in the red in 2015 because of all the snow it cleared and salt it used in January, February and March. 

The mild beginning to the current winter saved the city some money, but then the large snowfall that hit Ottawa at the end of December pushed winter operations spending further into deficit. 

Unpredictable weather

"It's difficult to put that budget right on a particular number with the unpredictability of the weather," said Luc Gagné, the city's manager of road services.

Last winter saw record-cold temperatures, he said, while early 2016 has kept his crews busy with several freeze-thaw cycles. 

Gagné could not say whether the recent record snowfall followed by rain and a big melt have put the city on course to blow its winter operations budget yet again.

The city did add a few million dollars to the 2016 budget, bringing planned spending to $63 million.

But the solution, according to the mayor, is not pouring more money into snow and ice cleanup.

Time to relax standards?

Instead, the city needs to look at ideas the auditor general put forward to make winter operations more efficient — suggestions that included having more snow removal done by contractors — and consider relaxing service standards.

For example, after the last big storm, Watson says he called the roads branch to stop a crew that was about to remove a snow bank near his home because he felt there was still plenty of room for traffic to pass by.

"I think we need to use judgment. There are some instances where we go overboard on snow removing and there are other instances where people are upset we're not doing enough," said Watson.

"We have to get to a point where, one, the system is affordable and secondly, that we're not always in a situation where we're scrambling to find money at the end of the year."

Consulting firm KPMG is currently conducting a wide-ranging review of the city's winter operations, the first such study since amalgamation.

The review is expected to look at such issues as changing weather patterns and the city's snow clearing standards, which are far higher than the Ontario average.

A report is expected this spring.