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Higher Winter Maintenance Costs Anticipated

Written by  Michelle Ervin

Snow Cars 1

Private property owners in Ontario, including condo corporations, could find themselves paying a premium to keep their walkways safe this winter.

Rock salt is expected to be less available locally and cost more to source after flooding and a strike hampered output at two out of three major mines, according to Landscape Ontario, a trades association whose members include snow contractors. Tony DiGiovanni, executive director of Landscape Ontario, said that municipalities are at the front of the line to get the allocations they need for road-clearing operations from the mines. And, with only so much salt go around, he said the snow contractors that service private properties, and their suppliers, have been informed they will need to make alternative arrangements.

DiGiovanni said one option has been to establish new relationships overseas and pay higher prices upfront to have salt shipped in from Chile, Egypt and Morocco before the St. Lawrence River freezes. But he added that some contractors may need help from their clients to come up with the financial resources and storage space to pursue this route, and those who do may still find themselves coming up short.

“There are two issues,” said DiGiovanni. “One is the extra cost. Two is even with the barges coming in, there is not going to enough supply, depending on the weather, because the inventory that was in place was knocked out with the late winter storm we had this year.”

Anticipating surcharges, stretching supplies

Landscape Ontario has been trying to get the word out about the shortage in salt inventory so snow contractors and their clients can plan accordingly.

One condo management company has responded by encouraging condo corporations to consider buying enough bagged salt and other de-icers to fill as much as an extra skid each. That way, staff can take steps to prevent slips and falls while waiting for snow contractors to service their properties following precipitation.

“Depending on the terms of [their] landscaping contract, corporations should also be prepared for the budget impact,” Crossbridge Condominium Services advised recently. “Surcharges of $30/ton are anticipated from landscapers. As sites can use as much as 10 tons a month, the incremental costs could mount.”

These figures suggest condo corporations may face a monthly premium of up to a few thousand dollars, assuming their snow contractors are able to satisfy that level of demand for salt on their site. But the question of cost will become academic if supplies run out before the end of the season.

Landscape Ontario has also outlined a number of strategies for stretching limited supplies. They include calibrating equipment, mixing salt and sand, reviewing which parts of properties require salt coverage, and using other de-icing alternatives, such as beet juice or treated salt.

Courts look for preventative action

Property owners and their snow contractors have a compelling reason to salt generously: to avoid being accused of negligence and getting sued for damages by people injured in slip-and-fall accidents. The de-icing product is generally seen as the best way to melt and prevent the slippery patches that can form on pavement in the winter and pose a hazard.

The Occupiers’ Liability Act imposes a legal duty on property owners to take reasonable steps keep people safe on their premises. During the winter months, plowing and putting down salt and sand after it snows are certainly among the steps that people expect property owners to take, but they alone may not be enough, said personal injury lawyer Matthew Reid.

“The courts have also been looking more and more at whether or not you took any preventative action,” he said.

Reid, an associate at Cohen Highley, cited monitoring the weather and salting before freeze-thaw cycles as examples of preventative action. He added that other precautions could include blocking off and posting signage alerting people to unmaintained areas of the property, and surveying properties ahead of the winter season and fixing gaps in pavement where water could pool and freeze.

Condo corporations generally offload their liability for seasonal slips and falls onto their snow contractors, which Reid characterized as a best practice. But having this type of agreement in place doesn’t absolve property owners and managers of all responsibility. Snow contractors can’t address conditions they’re not aware of, and he noted that condo corporations have to exercise caution in implementing additional measures to mitigate slip-and-fall risks.

“If a condo corporation farms out everything to a contractor, any other action that they take can be seen as basically taking over liability from them,” Reid explained, “so it’s really important, if there are problems, to connect with the maintenance company and let them know: I’ve put down some salt because there’s a bunch of ice, but can you come out and take a look at everything?”

Current model may be unsustainable

The shortage in salt inventory this winter may be a short-term crisis, but one snow contractor suggested that extenuating factors have simply caused a spike in a longer term trend. David Lammers, president of Garden Grove Landscaping, said snow contractors who buy directly from the local major mines have not been able to get enough of the de-icing product to make it through the season without tapping into other sources for the last seven winters.

Lammers said that demand for salt has outpaced supply in recent years, snowballing due to client expectations, frivolous lawsuits and weather patterns. He observed that the current terms of the relationship between property owners and snow contractors, in which contractors bear the full brunt of exposure to slips and falls, is becoming increasingly untenable.

“It’s going to come to a head because guys can still get insurance, but it’s getting harder and harder, and the rates are going up and up, and it’s all because of liability,” Lammers asserted. “Guys have been putting down more and more salt, but that’s consuming too much product.”

In the U.S., the Accredited Snow Contractors Association has been advocating for legislation that would end the practice of property owners asking their snow contractors to hold them harmless in connection with seasonal slips and falls, with success in states including Colorado.

“We’ve got to get to a place whether the property owner’s taking responsibility for the property and the contractor’s taking responsibility for the work they’re doing,” said Lammers.

A catalyst to recalibrate relationship?

The shortage in salt inventory this winter could serve as a catalyst for snow contractors and property owners to recalibrate their relationship.

“Ultimately, it’s the owner and the property managers that are responsible for their properties,” said DiGiovanni. “They transfer that responsibility to their contractor, but if the contractor’s in trouble, everybody’s in trouble.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.