Layoffs will slow snowclearing next winter, city acknowledges

Published on March 29, 2016
Coun. Danny Breen (right) and top city bureaucrats Lynnann Winsor and Kevin Breen, speak with reporters Tuesday.
James McLeod/The Telegram

Top City of St. John's bureaucrats acknowledged Tuesday that cutting $1.35 million and laying off 48 workers will mean slower snowclearing next winter, but it’s tough to say by how much.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Coun. Danny Breen stood up at Monday night’s city council meeting and insisted that due to “optimization” of workers, services wouldn’t be harmed.

“Of course, I mean, any time you have a reduction of eight people from a shift, your response time might not be as good as it was when you had eight people on that shift,” associate city manager Kevin Breen said.

“There will be some delays, obviously, because you don’t have as many people working.”

Both Kevin Breen and Danny Breen said the important thing is that even if plowing roads takes longer than it used to, it’ll still be within the city’s mandated targets — 12 hours after a snowstorm for a first cut, and 24 hours after a storm for widening.

Under the new system, there will still be workers available to clear the sidewalks, as well as plow operators for the roads, but “spare” operators are getting eliminated, as well as a full, separate shift of daytime sidewalk snowclearing workers.

This is expected to save $1.3 million from next year’s budget, at a time when the city council is under siege for raising taxes and cutting services to manage a budget crunch.

The measures were passed unanimously by council Monday night.

In the wake of the decision, CUPE spokesman Brian Farewell said the city’s message about services not being harmed is bunk.

“It is nonsensical to talk about reducing each shift by the numbers that he’s talking about and maintain services. It doesn’t make sense,” Farewell said.

“I think it’s a snow job.”

Farewell said that between the tough budget and these new layoffs, morale among workers has taken a hit.

“I don’t think you could bottom out any more than what they are now,” he said.

Farewell was also skeptical about the whole plan, because it seems to rely on more overtime from the workers who are left to cover during serious snowstorms. He said if there’s a bad winter with a lot of snow, all of the savings will be wiped out by higher overtime costs.

But Lynnann Winsor, deputy city manager for public works, said the city hasn’t really looked at that.

“We haven’t factored in overtime costs into it, because less people to get overtime, even if there is more overtime, it should even out,”

The layoffs also impact a smaller number of summer workers, and it brings an end to a pilot project for road maintenance. Last year, managers tried dividing the city into four areas, and having one crew responsible for each. Now they are going back to a three-area system.

As for how long it takes to fill potholes, and whether it will take longer in the future, Winsor said it’s tough to say.

“I’m not aware of a specific guideline, but of course, as soon as we become aware of the pothole, we try to get it filled as soon as we can,” she said.

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