Toronto city hall struggling with snow — and 8 years of austerity

Torontonians can forgive their municipal government for being cash-strapped. But can they put up with a city that can't handle a snowy winter?

Political priorities seem clear in this years budget, even as city sidewalks aren't

City crews will be working 12-hour shifts over the next week as they try to dig out neighbourhood streets and sidewalks. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

For the city of Toronto, the hits just seem to keep coming.

Rents are somehow getting even higher. The city's budget isn't balanced. The transit system needs a future investment equivalent to the GDP of a small country. Premier Doug Ford is trying to take the city's stuff, even as local politicians tell him to please stop doing that.

And then: it snowed.

Torontonians can forgive their municipal government for being cash-strapped. They get that housing is unaffordable, but it's also old news. And they understand that the city's relations with Ford's government will be challenging.

But snow? Toronto's government should at least be able to handle to snow, shouldn't it?

This winter's blast of snow and ice has put a major strain on municipal services. After a storm in January left roads messy, residents lodged more than 5,000 complaints with the city's 311 service. People weren't happy.

The reaction prompted Mayor John Tory to call for a review of the city's snow clearing operations.

The city's struggles to keep the roads clear also brought renewed focus to the city's policy when it comes to sidewalk snow removal. Most local streets in the suburbs of North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough get the sidewalk plow service. Local streets in the Toronto and East York area do not.

It's an inequality that has a lot of residents in the downtown area frustrated, especially after a series of icy storms turned sidewalks into skating rinks.

City slow to respond to sidewalk snow complaints — and injuries add up

The city's bylaws require homeowners in areas without sidewalk plowing to keep their sidewalks clear, but enforcement is lax and late.

In a recent presentation to the city's budget committee, the Harbord Village Residents' Association reported that residents were told bylaw inspectors would investigate their complaints about uncleared sidewalks sometime within the next three weeks.

Heavy snow had shopkeepers shovelling out on Queen Street West. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

And the city's approach to sidewalk clearing in the part of the city with the highest levels of pedestrian volumes isn't just frustrating — it's also dangerous and expensive.

Last Thursday, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Timothy Leroux told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that he's seen an increase in the number of slip-and-fall injuries this winter. The city reports that liability claims resulting from winter slips and falls amount to about $6.7 million each year.

City's snow troubles come after years of austerity 

Any real improvement to Toronto's snow situation will require one thing: money.

But money for improved city services has been hard to come by at Toronto's city hall where austerity has been the policy of choice for two straight terms of municipal government.

Both Tory and his predecessor, Rob Ford, insisted on keeping annual residential property tax increases at or below the inflation. That decision, coupled with the city's growing population, means some city departments have had to stretch their dollars further for each of the last eight years.

Riding your bike? Better bust out the studded tires. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

That approach doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. Tory promised to continue his low-tax direction in last year's municipal election, and won in a landslide. And so the city's draft budget for 2019 was crafted to again keep taxes low.

It's a budget that doesn't leave much room for solutions to snow clearing — or anything else on Toronto's long list of problems. But that might be by design.

On Feb 14, as Toronto residents were still slipping over sidewalks and digging themselves out of the winter storm that hit two days earlier, the city issued a press release touting its reaffirmed Aa1 credit rating, with a quote from Tory championing "sensible financial stewardship."

The political priorities seemed clear, even when the sidewalks weren't.


Matt Elliott

Municipal affairs analyst

Matt Elliott has been following, analyzing and delving deep into wonky policy stuff at Toronto city hall since 2010. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.


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