Are Vancouver taxpayers getting their money's worth this winter?

The advent of a particularly prolonged snowpocalypse this winter has some taxpayers in Vancouver questioning whether city hall is keeping up its side of the bargain.

City says weather has been unusual this year; it will be reviewing its response to long-term icy conditions

Pedestrians and drivers have been calling for the City of Vancouver to clear slick ice that has been accumulating for weeks. (David Horemans/CBC)

It's a basic tenet of paying taxes: in exchange for taking our hard-earned dollars, municipalities provide us with basic services like garbage removal and clearing roads of ice and snow.

But a particularly prolonged snowpocalypse this winter that's caused slippery sidewalks and delayed garbage pickup has some Vancouverites questioning whether city hall is keeping up its side of the bargain.

"The City of Vancouver has shown itself to be woefully unprepared for this kind of snow and ice storm," said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers' Association.

Bateman isn't calling for the city to spend taxpayers' dollars on more snowplows. Instead, he wants the city to be more proactive and efficient.

He says crews have been too slow to get trucks out to salt roads and sidewalks before it snows and to educate residents about their responsibility to clear their sidewalks.

"Since the snow froze, they've basically been playing catch up, and that's never a good place to be when making good fiscal decisions," he said. 

"We're saying take the weather reports seriously and go out and salt ahead of time."

'Not an anomaly'

That was a sentiment echoed by opposing Coun. George Affleck, who earlier this week called for an independent investigation into the city's snow removal plans

"This [weather] is not an anomaly," Affleck said.  

"This is the third time in eight years, since Vision took control of council, that we've had these storms with significant snow and ice."

Speaking with On the Coast host Stephen Quinn, Affleck also criticized the city's lack of proactive response, saying it doesn't have enough salt storage and didn't make enough use of the snow plows the city does have.

"It was really the decisions that were made before Christmas that have caused a bigger problem related to the ice beneath the snow," he said. 

Many Vancouver residents have been complaining about the city's icy sidewalks. (David Horemans/CBC)

On Tuesday, the city's general manager of engineering services, Jerry Dobrovolny, admitted city staff had hoped the ice would melt before it had to redeploy 300 city staff to deal with the icy mess.

​"I feel that the mayor does not take this seriously, he does not care about this as an issue," Affleck said.

Affleck is also one of several people asking for Mayor Gregor Robertson to respond to the crisis in person. Many have criticized the mayor's absence during the cold snap, calling for him to face critics instead of putting forward city staff. 

'This is not a normal year'

Acting mayor Raymond Louie responded to criticisms about the city's response to the icy conditions, although he wouldn't comment on the mayor's whereabouts other than to say he's on holiday. 

"The issues I think that are important for citizens is not where the mayor is but rather what is the city doing with the resources that we have available to make the city safe," Louie said.

In additional to the extra snow removal crews, so far this year the city has spent $2.5 million on snow and ice removal and used 7,000 tonnes of salt — up from a budgeted  $750,000 and 1,000 tonnes, respectively. 

"The challenge is of course that this is not a normal year," he said. "This time we've realized that it's not melting."

Buses in Vancouver often have trouble getting up hills in snowy, icy conditions. (CBC)

It's been more than a month since average daily temperatures rose above 5 C, according to Environment Canada — conditions the city hasn't seen in almost 30 years. 

As for delayed recycling pickup, Louie admitted the company contracted to do the work, Smithrite, "has been failing."

"You can be sure that we will be having some serious conversations with them and why they underperformed," he said. 

The city will be reviewing its response to the icy conditions, he says, especially in regards to prolonged conditions like these. 

'The issue is guesstimating wrong'

Former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier Mike Harcourt says he understands why taxpayers are concerned, but said the situation is unusual.

"I think this year because it's so cold and the snow is remaining, the city's behind the eight ball — I think that's obvious," Harcourt said. "But so is everybody."

In terms of spending taxpayers' dollars on snow removal, Harcourt recalled joking with then-mayor of Montreal Jean Drapeau about how much Vancouver budgeted for it in 1983.

At the time, Vancouver's snow removal was $500,000 per year. For Montreal, it was $35 million — a figure that has since grown to $155 million, which is about three per cent of the city's budget.

But he says comparing Vancouver's budget and response to cities that receive five months of snow clearly isn't fair. 

Harcourt says the issue isn't really about raising taxes to increase snow removal costs, since they're such a small part of Vancouver's $1.322-billion operating budget and often don't get spent. 

Instead, it's about trying to achieve the difficult task of accurately predicting what will happen with the weather for the city's normally temperate climate. 

"The problem with Vancouver's winter and snow is you never know what's going to happen from year to year," he said. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.