Nfld. & Labrador

$1.3M St. John's sidewalk snow-clearing proposal voted down by city committee

The City of St. John's committee of the whole has voted down a proposal to increase the the sidewalk snow clearing budget by an additional $1.35 million.

Proposal loses in 7-3 vote, as committee vows to look at other options

This 2019 snowfall filled in downtown St. John's sidewalks. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Winter walkability around St. John's won't get a cash boost this upcoming season, as the City of St. John's committee of the whole has voted down a proposal to spend any more money on sidewalk snow clearing in 2020-21.

Coun. Ian Froude pitched the idea of increasing this winter's sidewalk snow-clearing budget by $1.35 million at the city's committee of the whole meeting Wednesday afternoon, a motion that was subsequently buried in a 7-3 vote, with only Froude, Coun. Maggie Burton and Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary supporting it.

"I think it's extremely important that we significantly improve the clearing of snow and ice from sidewalks in the city," Froude, the city council lead for public works and sustainability, told meeting attendees as he set forth the proposal.

"I personally believe it is imperative that we create safe conditions for people to get around."

Earlier this year a group upset over the state of winter sidewalks in the St. John's gathered outside city hall pushing for more snow clearing, a protest that factored into city staff seeking public input from residents about the issue.

The results of the survey suggested residents want the city to do more. 

"The survey was quite clear, shows the dissatisfaction of residents and their feelings of unsafe conditions as they move around the city in the wintertime," said Froude.

"I've listened to those with disabilities share their experience in getting around and it weighs on me heavily."

More students and parents may be walking to school this year due to the pandemic, said Froude.

January's record blizzard took a large chunk out of the city's snow-clearing budget. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

An 'essential service'

With a crispness to the air, Froude said action needed to be taken now to prepare for whatever winter may dump on the city in the coming months — which means finding funding before council has even put together their budget. 

"In February I made it clear to council that I was no longer interested in defending this service without a commitment to real, substantial progress," he said.

"I know it's uncomfortable, and it's somewhat outside the budget process, but it's on this timeline so that we can make progress for this winter."

Froude called sidewalk snow clearing an "essential service" and his pitch asked for $900,000 toward new equipment and $450,000 for operating funds, like cleaning intersections and sidewalks. 

Where is the money coming from? Where are we taking it from?- Coun. Jamie Korab

But the $1.35-million proposal didn't win over many elected officials at city hall, although everyone who spoke at the meeting made it clear that while sidewalk snow clearing is an important issue facing the city, it's not the only one.

"Once Snowmageddon happened we said, 'Well, what else could happen this year?' and then the pandemic happened," Mayor Danny Breen said.

"We also have the impact on the economy of the oil industry."

While the city has posted a financial surplus ahead of December's budget, Breen has warned that money will be needed to deal with  economic fallout from the pandemic. He also said that since 2021 is an assessment year for properties, values could drop and have a negative effect on the city's biggest revenue generator: property taxes.

"I very strongly believe that any funding of that magnitude needs to be a part of the bigger budget discussion when we have a better handle on what the financial implications are," Breen said.

"If we were to do this today, we are going into the unknown financially. I'm not prepared to do that."

Dozens of protesters descended on St. John's city hall in February to push for better sidewalk clearing. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Arguments for, and against

Speaking in support of the motion, Burton said it's not uncommon for the city to drop this amount of cash on issues.

"There are a lot of things that are considered super normal for the city to spend money on, and in St. John's unfortunately snow clearing has not been one of those things," she said.

"It's been effectively deprioritized."

Speaking against the motion, Coun. Jamie Korab said he had been supportive of spending more on sidewalk snow clearing, but that was before fiscal one-two punch of Snowmaggedon and COVID-19.

"It's hard to compound this issue right now on spending more money until we have the whole impact of where our 2021-2022 budget is going to be," he said. 

"$1.35 million is a very big spend.… Where is the money coming from? Where are we taking it from?"

Coun. Wally Collins likewise questioned where the funds would come from, saying there was little appetite for a tax increase in the face of the city's unpredictable weather. 

"This winter you might not even see enough [snow] to make a snowman," he said.

The financial request lost by a 7-3 vote. (City of St. John's)

Some snow measures passed

Froude's original motion was broken into three parts before being put forward for a vote.

The financial component was turned down, but the committee did vote to implement four priorities. Those include ensuring city resources are being used efficiently, with staff reviewing sidewalk, laneway and stairway priorities and making recommendations for any changes to city council this fall.

The committee also vowed to address the quality of clearing on current pathways, and enforcing existing bylaws that prohibit snow clearing efforts from obstructing sidewalks.

The committee will also look to free up resources with potentially deprioritizing clearing of some side roads.

The committee also voted to consider all options for winter 2021-22, and that the decision note is referred to the budget process.

The committee of the whole meets weekly to discuss city-related issues before some head to city council for a final say.

Despite being defeated, the motion will face a final vote during a council meeting in the coming weeks.

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