On Friday, November 10th, Gary Francis addressed the Rural Municipality of Torch River #488 council with questions and concerns in relation to road maintenance and snow removal as well as accumulated repairs required, due to what many ratepayers feel results from years of inadequate planning and maintenance.
As a resident of Division 4, Mr Francis spoke mainly of concerns of his own as well as voicing those concerns other Division 4 residents have shared with him, though many topics he covered applied to all divisions in the RM.
Four other ratepayers, including myself, attended the meeting in which the Reeve, and two Councillors were not present due to prior resignations.
Council in attendance were, Dave LaRose (Division 1), who chaired the meeting, Carissa Schmidt (Division 2), Peter Lubyk (Division 3) and Tom Jensen (Division 6) as well as RM Administrator Nathalie Hipkins and Superintendent Murray Black.
Residents in all areas of the RM have voiced their concerns about deteriorating roads, and what they feel are declining levels of service. Combine that with recent spikes in taxes many have seen, and what they feel to be little demonstrated by council as to how they will address their concerns, results in ratepayers left feeling frustrated. Whether it be fixing holes and mudholes in the summer or having to plow roads out in the winter, Mr Francis and many of his neighbours have spent many hours, wear and tear on equipment and cost of fuel to keep their roads from becoming impassible. While most neighbours I have spoken with don’t mind pitching in a bit, many feel that the amount we have to do ourselves is far too extensive and increasing every year.
Despite using caution when taking travelling these roads, Mr Francis and many other ratepayers have stated they are tired of the high cost of maintaining vehicles, with extensive suspension and related repairs. While most agree some wear and tear is to be expected when living in rural communities, many residents feel more can be done to provide us with better roads and reduce those costs.
Mr Francis, formerly a grader operator for the RM as well as an experienced grader operator in other industries including mining and oilfield work, expressed a wide variety of concerns, to follow are some of those concerns and responses from council and staff.
In general, many ratepayers are tired of bad roads, washboard, holes, no gravel, lips on the sides of the roads preventing water from running off, grass not cut back and other neglect. Frequency of grading many of the roads in Division 4 has declined and Mr Francis, as well as other residents, feel that this has resulted in a rapid deterioration of the grid and farm access roads. He also felt Operator & Equipment issues need to be address such as getting rid of carbide blades, providing proper operating training and follow up to that training. Dealing with issues such as high-blading, peeling crowns off the roads, leaving lips on sides of the roads, blading too fast, and not fixing washboard, particularly at intersections.
Most of the council and staff were receptive to his feedback and Superintendent Murray Black informed him that the RM grader operators had just recently been provided with a 5 day intensive training program and he is working with council and staff to ensure all the roads receive adequate maintenance. Administrator Nathlie Hipkins also pointed out that the new GPS systems were being installed which will enable a more accurate record of work done by the RM staff.
Delayed Preventive Maintenance Increasing Repairs & Costs
Also of concern was the impression given to many who complained about their roads earlier in the year, that the extensive repairs to damaged culverts throughout the RM, caused by the spring thaw and run-off, was causing delays to regular road grading. Mr Francis was among many who had called wondering when roads would be graded and told that crews were busy doing repairs. As an example, a 4 mile stretch of Range Road 2142, which has 7 yard sites and over 15 residents travelling on it daily as well as extensive farm vehicle and equipment traffic, did not see a grader until May 29th, even after that, this highly used road saw the graders very little. By the time the road was graded, considerable damage was done, resulting in extensive repairs which did not get completed until late October. To emphasis his point , Mr Francis explained to council the considerable expense incurred may have been mitigated had the regular maintenance not been put off. As an example, delays after rainfalls to grade roads often results in the roads getting too hard packed and when graders finally arrive they are unable to do a proper job of grading.
Whether or not crews being busy with repirs was the reason or not was not clarified at the time of the address to council.
Road Bans and Speeding on Grids & Farm Access Roads
Mr Francis also pointed out that enforcement of speed limits and road bans could be helpful in not only increasing safety on our roads, but reducing unnecessary wear and tear. Extensive damage was done to the roads in the eastern portion of Division 4 from heavy trucks hauling during the weight restriction during the 2017 thaw. While Mr Francis is aware that many farmers have set delivery dates for their grain that they have no control over, he pointed out that the amount of hauling that went on in the area was much higher than previous years. High use roads seeing excess speeding, particularly when the roads are wet and muddy also contribute to the damage.
In response, Administrator, Nathalie Hipkins, pointed out that residents are encouraged to call the RM office when they see trucks operating during road bans. It was also discussed that a problem arises in dealing with complaints due to many calls coming after office hours and that the bylaw enforcement officer also may not be able to deal with such complaints due to his current workload.
In regards to speeding on grid and farm access roads, it was acknowledged that the speed limit is set provincially at 80 KM/H, though the RM can dictate lower limits if it feels they are required. With the exception of some zones set for 50 KM/H, such as on speed corners, the RM of Torch River has no policy in place to limit speeds below the 80 KM/H limit. While Administrator, Nathalie Hipkins felt that people should already be aware of the provincially mandated speed limit, she offered to post a notice on the RM web site to remind residents.
Another large concern that although, he can only speak for his division, likely applies to the entire RM is School Bus Priority in snow removal planning. Over the past few years, Mr Francis and other residents have contacted the RM office and even directly called the shop with concerns about the priorities set for snow removal. Ratepayers have been told explicitly that school bus routes are not given a priority. Although he no longer has children riding the school buses, Mr Francis is concerned for the issues that arise when farm access roads are low priority. Aside from the obvious risks for both the bus drivers and the students should the buses get stuck, many parents are faced with transporting their children to the highway and often all the way into school on the same snowed in roads the buses didn’t dare attempt to travel.
Administrator, Nathalie Hipkins stated that school bus routes were a priority, however Superintendent Murray Black clarified that they had not been as an official policy previously, although he had personally made school bus routes a priority on the routes he was responsible for snow removal, and it was his intention to ensure they are now a priority for the entire RM.
RM Staffing Issues
Historically, Mr Francis, as well as other residents, have called the RM office to complain about the lack of road maintenance and snow removal and were often informed that staffing issues where part of the problem. Specific cases included staff on holidays, illnesses and even one snowfall when most of the operators where away at a training seminar. Mr Francis informed the council that he had, on many occasions volunteered his services to fill in when they where short handed as well as assist with training. He also pointed out to council that there were other experienced operators in the RM that could also be approached to help alleviate staff shortages or even just come in when the workload saw drastic increases, such as after a large snowfall. He also brought up the perceived issue that operators did not work weekends, and suggested changing shifts to accommodate staff days off while ensuring road maintenance and snow removal be dictated by need rather than days of the week.
While one Councillor took his use of the word “volunteered” too little literal and cited liability issues, after Mr Francis clarified he, or any other operators available, could work as on call staff or as an independent contractors and emphasized his point was the RM should consider sub contracting work when they are falling behind.
Superintendent Murray Black assured him that RM operators do, in fact work weekends and will continue to do so.
While no further explanation as to why no work is done on weekends in Mr Francis’ own area, he has assumed that being low priority may explain why only one instance in 2017 saw a grader work on their road on a weekend and even that was a special trip made by the former superintendent himself to address an issue he deemed should not wait until the next week.
More Residents With Issues
Mr Francis is not alone in his frustrations, other residents have shared their concerns as well, though not at this council meeting.
One resident has a genuine concern after they moved into Nipawin and found out, with no warning or notice from the council, that snow removal on their road was discontinued. While their farm yard site was no longer their primary residence they still needed to gain access to their home throughout the year. When they discovered their road wasn’t going to see snow removal, they contacted the RM office and were informed it was policy and that, if they needed access, they could call in advance and arrange the road to be cleared. Their concerns, however, extended beyond having to plan ahead to access their own property and extended to concerns that, due to no notice being given, another farmer had a winter hay supply to access. Had notice been given, that farmer could have moved the hay ahead of time. Additionally, they pay full resident taxes which are supposed to cover snow clearing and road maintenance, but also fire protection. With their road now essentially closed in the winter, the RM has made it difficult for emergency services to protect their home. The stretch of road effected is 1/2 mile and there is a concern that snow being allowed to build up, particularly as spring approaches, may also result in unnecessary damage to the road.
Another situation faced by one of Mr Francis’ neighbours has been impassable roads both in wet seasons and in winter. On many occasions one couple has had to rely on the kindness of their neighbours to make tracks in the snow so they can get out or even been stranded and pulled out of the mud by a one of those neighbours. The road they must travel is so bad that they often call those living down the road to find out if they think their vehicle will make it through. While not one of their friends mind helping, their situation raises a much bigger concern and that is access by emergency vehicles. What if they required an ambulance or fire protection? While recent repairs have finally been done to part of their road, the concern surrounding winter snow removal still exists.
Editors Note: This address to RM of Torch River council was done by a Division 4 resident, and addressed issues relevant to that area because, although he is aware of issues throughout the RM, Gary Francis can not responsibly speak for other divisions without first hand knowledge. If you have concerns about roads or any other issues in your own division, or the RM in general, you are encouraged to contact the RM and voice those opinions.
Disclaimer: Please be assured that all measures where taken to remain impartial and report honestly as to the outcome of the delegation to council. If you feel there are any errors, omissions or misconceptions, please contact Nipawin News using the contact form on this website.