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Politicians dump on Hamilton’s snow clearing service

By Kevin Werner • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP

Hamilton councillors provided a blizzard of complaints and criticisms to city staff over what is being described as the “worst storm event service removal” in the history of Hamilton following the Boxing Day snow storm that blanketed the region.

“Our service stunk,” said Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson. “I can’t say it any nicer than that. It was awful.”

RELATED: Hamilton councillor claims some residential streets receive sub-standard slow clearing service

While high priority roads such as the Lincoln Alexander Parkway and the Red Hill Parkway were cleared in record time, some secondary roads and side streets were either ignored or barely touched, said councillors during their Jan. 16 public works committee meeting.

Compounding the problem was the fact that when snow operators did get out – three to five days later – they piled snow on nearby sidewalks, left side streets packed down with snow or they only made one pass blocking residents in their homes.

“I felt very, very frustrated for three days,” said Mountain councillor Scott Duvall. “Residents were not only calling my office, but calling my home.”

Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla and Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead said there were streets in neighbourhoods that were not plowed in their wards.

Merulla said private contractors either delayed providing the snow service or didn’t even come out during the storm. He said roads bounded by King and Barton streets and Ottawa Street were not plowed.

“(Private contractors) were non existent,” said Merulla. “They were not delayed. There was no action. I tried to get the public guys to get what the private guys were not doing.”

Whitehead said only one street in the Fessenden neighbourhood, Magnolia Drive, was plowed, leaving about 6,000 residents unable to get out of their homes. Whitehead said he received about 275 complaints about the lack of service. He said plows didn’t start removing snow until five days later after he pleaded with them to plow them.

“It’s not my job to drag out people from a yard to plow roads that haven’t been touched,” said Whitehead.

Hamilton was hit with about 18 cm of snow on Boxing Day, the first significant snow event the city experienced in two years. On Jan. 29, another eight cm of snow added to the city’s plowing issues.

City staff acknowledged its snow removal service failed residents, but said improvements already have been made to prevent future problems.

“We did let the public down,” said Darrell Smith, manager of roads and maintenance. “We have taken steps not to let that happen again.”

Bryan Shynal, director of operations, blamed communications gaps, oversight problems, the inability to properly deploy equipment and employee turnover for the poor service provided.

He acknowledged that payments to private operators who did not provide any service have not been paid by the city because they failed to live up to their contracts. But Shynal refused to release the name of any private contractor who failed to provide any plowing service, or had payments denied to them. He said city staff is examining the contracts, and they are making sure the private operators live up to their obligations.

“I’m shocked to learn we have confidentiality issues within contracts,” said Ward 5 councillor Chad Collins. “We need to revise those contracts and make them available to the public and councillors.”

Collins, whose ward also had roads that were not plowed, said residents are paying for a service they are not receiving. They need to know whether they want that operator back, but they can’t make that decision without knowing who the contractor is.

“I’m a little concerned we are not disclosing the name,” he said.

In addition, since Hamilton had its last serious snow storm two years ago, the city has seen a 66 per cent turnover in staff. The city hired new snow plow operators in 2012, which it does every five years, adding further inexperience to the city’s service.

Shynal acknowledged that some private operators only provided half of the equipment that was required to the city during the storm event.

The city has about 60 contractors, with 38 on call, and another 22 are on standby. The city has about 110 pieces of equipment available, and contracts an additional 330 equipment materials. The costs to the city for contractors to provide the equipment during snow events range from $1,200 per month for a four-by-four, to $2,850 per month for a grader, said Smith.

Residents, said staff and councillors, also contributed to the snow problem as they left their vehicles on side streets, inhibiting plows from clearing streets. Councillors were suggesting staff provide a better communications initiative to tell residents to move their vehicles prior to a snowstorm.

“All of these (issues) created gaps,” said Shynal. “We are focusing on the human side of this area. We want to avoid any further missteps.”

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