So Moved, St. John’s: 26 July 2021

To continue extoling the virtues of the sidewalk clearing program while people with mobility issues are housebound during the winter months is nothing short of gaslighting.

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I’m forgoing my usual fuller recap of this Monday’s council meeting in favour of a deeper dive into a subject we should all care about: winter sidewalk clearing.

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

As much as one shudders to think about it in July, this discussion has come up at this time during the past three years, because any equipment acquisition for expanded service has to be initiated by September at the latest to be operational during the coming winter season. We have Cllr Froude to thank for this bit of very wise (if uncomfortable) forethought. As head of public works for the first three years of this council term, he took it upon himself to assure this conversation would be had in a way that might make meaningful progress possible in the near term. Unfortunately, there continue to be roadblocks in the way.

At Monday’s council meeting—following up on the discussion from Committee of the Whole on July 14—Cllr Hickman introduced a motion “that the addition of a third shift and associated $500,000 cost be recommended to the budget process.” Don’t be confused, dear residents: this is not a motion to actually add this money. Indeed, a very similar motion was introduced around this time last year, in tandem with the results of public engagement: a statement by residents that they wouldn’t mind too much if their taxes went up a bit if it meant better sidewalk clearing.

If you don’t know how that story ended, I can tell you that no additional budget was allocated to clearing the sidewalks for 2021. The majority of council, with the exception of Cllrs Burton and Froude, chose to err on the side of (if I may quote Cllr Skinner’s by-election platform) “NO TAX INCREASE” rather than providing this essential service to residents.

Kicking the Can Down the Road Every Six Months

Cllr Froude put it succinctly, “I feel like every six months we have a discussion about this and decide to talk about it in six months.” Which is accurate: twice a year, the majority of councillors say how very much they agree that sidewalk clearing needs to be improved, while actively preventing any improvements from taking place. Their support, it would seem, exists in the theoretical space that always falls short of taking responsibility for allocating the required budget.

The motion tabled on Monday is predicated on the idea that discussing expenditures outside budget time is somehow untoward. That might hold water if the City didn’t make financial decisions on an ongoing basis. Each decision note has a description of the budgetary implications of said decision for a reason: while the discussions leading up to a budget might form the high-level planning of expenditures, it is factually untrue to say that is the only time that Council makes choices about the allocation of funds.

The other argument underpinning the motion is that the current council doesn’t want to tie the hands of the next council. While it’s true that the 2022 budget may be ratified by at least some new councillors, if they feel strongly about any decision this council has made, now or over the last four years, it is within their authority to change it. The City has a responsibility to deliver a budget. Failure to plan for that—especially given that there’s a period of mere weeks between the new council’s swearing-in and the delivery of their first budget—means this council is prematurely washing its hands. 

Cllrs Skinner and Hickman doubled down on the point that sidewalk snow clearing is great. This underscores that they are unlikely to have interacted with winter sidewalks to any meaningful degree, and that they are quite detached from the public who want or need to walk in the winter as if they are human beings who live in an actual city. “Staff are doing a great job” is often the refrain, but the latter half of that statement is missing: the staff are absolutely doing a great job—with not nearly enough resources.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

The current sidewalk clearing standard is 4-7 days to complete the 161 km that the City maintains, representing about 10% of sidewalks. Crews use a priority system, starting with the 300 m drop off zone around schools—not to be confused with the 1.6 km zone around schools in which children are not eligible for bussing, which is not necessarily cleared by the City at all—down through five priority levels. If during those 4-7 days there is another snow event, crews start at the priority one sidewalks again.

If you’ve lived here for any amount of time you know that a winter with 4-7 day intervals between snow events is rare. Which is to say: many of those sidewalks that the City claims as part of its clearing route rarely, if ever, see a plow. To this end, Cllrs Burton and Froude both express that they’re against adding any new routes without additional spending—which, like this entire motion, would be making a promise that council fully knows it can’t keep.

In order to make progress in this area, an infusion of both capital and operating spending is required. More plows need to be bought and then people need to be paid to operate them. Every stone has been turned at this point that can be done within the current budget allocation. Blame for failing to act on this rest squarely on those councillors who continue to kick this can down the road every summer, shouting that it’s not right to talk about financial allocations outside of budget time—and then at budget time failing to take action.

To continue to extol the virtues of the sidewalk clearing program while people with mobility issues are housebound during the winter months is nothing short of gaslighting. Cllr Burton’s simple statement on the motion, “This is a motion to do absolutely nothing,” hits the nail on the head. Knowing that the equipment needs to be acquired in the next few weeks and choosing not to make a decision now commits to another winter that privileges marginally lower taxes for some over the right to basic freedom of movement for others. 

To that end, Cllr Collins’ only contribution to the discussion was the conjecture that, “the taxes are gonna go way, way up” if any further budget is allocated to sidewalk clearing. Let’s break that down, shall we?

Putting a Price on Pedestrians

To fully comprehend the magnitude of this expenditure, it’s helpful to examine the City’s financial framework: the City is bound by provincial legislation to have balanced budgets. The Municipal Taxation Act—again, a piece of provincial legislation—defines the City’s taxation abilities through a regressive framework tied to property values. The rate of taxation on properties is assessed by multiplying the mil rate (currently set for residential properties at 7.7 and commercial properties at 26.1) by the value of a property divided by 1000. This means that if you have a higher valued property, you pay more tax, a lower valued home, less tax. The balanced budget legislation means that if spending increases, savings either need to be found elsewhere, or taxes have to increase to make up the shortfall. What gets lost in the conversation is the relative size of the change being debated here.

The options presented in the decision note from Committee of the Whole, as moved by Cllr Burton, totalled $985,000. That’s a 0.3 increase over the City’s 2021 budget, which is total was $312,526,525. The “way, way up” Cllr Collins threatens amounts to… $6.21 per year on an average priced home. ($269,000 according to CMHC in 2019, the most representative number I could find for the City’s property tax base date of January 1, 2020.)

$6.21 per year on the average homeowner’s residential tax bill is the amount ⅝ members of council present at this Monday’s meeting think is an unreasonable sum for residents’ right to walk in the city they live in for the 4-6 months during which it snows. 

This is how little the safety of pedestrians is valued.

Cllr Hickman states that improvements have been made over the last number of years in this area, and he isn’t wrong. Cllr Froude led the charge on bringing this discussion to committee early enough to make meaningful change starting in 2018, when more routes were contracted out, speeding up the service. More staff resources, new equipment, and operational improvements were added in years since. But at this point, all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked and any further development is going to require financial investment to match. Certainly, celebrating that we can now replace equipment which breaks down feels ridiculous if you apply that metric to any other piece of transportation infrastructure. But when thinking about replacing broken street plows, this is taken as a given and that it might be anything else feels laughable. 

“We would like to do more!” Cllr Hickman said, while making a motion to not do more—for the third year in a row. Referring an item to the budget process may have seemed like a note of hope, had it not happened twice before to no avail. Though he was absent from the regular meeting, at COTW Cllr Korab mirrored these statements. “We know we need to do better,” even as he spoke in favour of, well, not doing that.

Car Culture is Taking This City For a Ride

Budgets are fundamentally a question of priorities. Historically the clearing of sidewalks has not been seen as “essential,” a symptom of our 1950s throwback car culture and the ableism and classism that is baked into that culture. Indeed, no sidewalks were cleared by the City at all until the Metrobus strike of 2009. Viewing pedestrian infrastructure as a nice treat and infrastructure for cars as sacred and necessary is at the core of a host of social, health, and environmental problems which require dedication and perseverance to change—not only by the courage of elected officials, but in the mindset of the public. 

The results of the engagement on sidewalk snowclearing—a process where nearly 1000 residents participated—offered an opportunity for councillors to say, “Look, we asked, you said you wanted this!” and finally make the investment required to change the game of winter mobility in our city. Instead, the majority of council chose the easy, punchy soundbite about keeping taxes low—and to exaggerate the marginal spending increase required when viewed in the context of the City’s entire budget.

And let’s be clear about the crumbs we’re fighting for here: the motion made by Cllr Burton would increase the length of sidewalks cleared by a pithy 11 km, to a grand total of 172 km of sidewalk. The City clears 1440 km of roads in a maximum of 24 hours for an average snow event. Clearing 172 km of sidewalk in a full work week would still not be nearly enough, but it would be an incredible improvement in quality of life and safety for those residents of our city who need or want to walk in the winter. 

In the Robert Munsch story “Something Good”, a kid asks her dad, who is arguing with a store clerk insisting he pay the price on the tag that’s been stuck to her: “Daddy, don’t you think I’m worth $29.95?”

When it comes to sidewalks, we should be asking why some councillors don’t think we’re worth $6.21.

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