Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Snow Job

Nation, with the arrival of Winter comes the annual rite-of-passage for Calgarians. They wake up in the morning, look at the streets on the way to their vehicle, see snow, and then try to guess a) how many accidents will be reported on in tomorrow's paper, and b) how long it will take for the city to plow their neighbourhood.

Calgary city council, predictably, cries foul over any suggestion that the city needs to increase the snow removal budget.
"Citizens will revolt! It'll mean increasing their taxes by a hundred dollars or more per year!"
, they cry. Anyone who has lived here for more than 2 Winters realizes the game that council is playing, of course: It's called "pray for a chinook".

If Calgary gets 10 cm of snow in a 24 hour period, you just need to plow and sand the major routes, and cross your fingers. 250 vehicular accidents will take place in those 24 hours, but think of the thousands of vehicles that WON'T be in collisions. Then you sit tight, and wait for Mother Nature to cast that beautiful arch in the West, and She'll take care of the rest.

Elections are in October, so snow removal rarely comes up. After all, it's been 6 months since the last time the roads needed to be plowed. And as long as those chinooks keep coming, people will be happy, roads will be clear, and you'll be acclaimed for doing a great job, and keeping tax rates down.

The people involved in those 100, 150, 200, 250, or more accidents EVERY. SINGLE. SNOWFALL. would disagree. They'd tell you that the failure of the city to plow and sand any but the most major of the routes led to their accident. The minivan full of Timbit hockey players that bounced off that light standard because the feeder road still hadn't been plowed, 4 days later, isn't all that concerned with the tax rate.

Nation, I know we hate to compare ourselves with Edmonton... but, as the only major centre near us, and facing a similar climate, we're going to take a look and compare snow removal in the 2 cities.

Size within city limits: 726 km2.
Average annual snowfall: 135 cm
Annual Snow Removal Budget: 21.1 Million
Size within city limits: 684 km2
Average annual snowfall: 123 cm
Annual Snow Removal Budget: 40 Million

So, let's review: Edmonton is smaller, by a shade over 40 square kilometres. They get 12 centimetres less of snow every year. They (admittedly) don't get chinooks. And they spend 18.9 MILLION dollars more per year on snow removal than Calgary.

"We don't have the money!", cries city council.

"Find something to cut - do your jobs, and keep your citizens safe!", respond Joe and Jane Calgarian.

Playing "pray for a chinook" might be fun, but it's not good public policy. Chinooks or not, we live in a snow-prone area in one of the northernmost major cities on the planet - only London, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow are further North with larger populations than Calgary.

Calgarians are a funny bunch. They revolt against even the whiff of unfairness in their federal government, occasionally make noise about the provincial government, and all but ignore their city council for the first 3 years of the new council's term. Mis-spending, lack of services, you name it, and Calgarians will just assume it's some other level of government's fault for not giving their mayor enough to work with.

I'm told I have to clear my sidewalk within 24 hours of a snowfall, or risk a $155 ticket. The reason I'm given for this commandment is "public safety". The irony should not be lost on anyone.

The bottom line is, people get hurt and die every snowfall in this city, because our council lacks the political courage to do something unpopular (raising taxes or cutting programs to allow an increase in the snow removal budget) in order to save lives and suffering.

Calgarians should hold their elected officials accountable for this lack of courage. Mail your $155 ticket in to city hall with a note attached to it:

"You First".

Lest we forget (and we usually do): THEY answer to US, not the other way around.


Anonymous said...

Rock on.

Anonymous said...

You hit it on the head. It is a weird thing about municipal politics, very rarely are councilors held accountable, at least in the two cities anyway. Here in Edmonton they talk about a massive increase in taxes for primarily snow removal and then in the same breath approve a $90 million rec centre project. While it is a P3 and I don't think will cost the city as much as the 90 million tab, a third of 90 mil is still 30 million dollars. So there's the rub -- half of that bill should cover your snow removal.

I realize that this is a very simplified example but that's the point. City councils never cut any programs ever. I have never heard of responsible program development in Edmonton anyways, just spend, spend, spend and when you run out of money, council bitches! I have never heard of Edmonton council saying, "you know, this program costs us 6 million a year, and provides us with squat, maybe we should revamp and use the money else where."

Anonymous said...

You're right on target here, ES. The danger of driving in Calgary after a snowfall is not a danger I'm willing to accept, especially since my wife drives to work every morning in the winter. I've actually emailed my Alderman about this, basically asking him some questions of this issue. I wonder if he'll respond?

Enlightened Savage said...

ward8guy: I wouldn't count on it, but if he DOES respond, I'd be happy to post his response on the blog.

I suspect that if Alberta's municipal elections were held in, say, January rather than October, that Calgary's snow removal budget would be much higher. Withholding or shortchanging an essential service because it's easy and not politically vital is both cowardly and wrong.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, no response so far... but I'll let you know if that changes :-)