All city taxpayers to share cost of new firefighters for three years
Sudbury Star
 

After a convoluted discussion that was at times difficult to follow, council has decided on a taxation scheme that will temporarily spread the costs of hiring eight new firefighters across the city.

During this week’s council meeting, councillors discussed area ratings, which, broadly speaking, assign different taxation rates to different parts of the city, based on the transit and municipal fire service received. There are four different zones within the city — urban, composite, volunteer commuter and volunteer.

Those living in urban areas — basically the former city of Sudbury — will pay an additional 3.9 per cent in taxes in 2021; $14 of that total is dedicated to the fire operating budget.

Those living in the Valley will see a tax increase of 4.1 per cent in 2021.

“Valley East residents will end up with a 4.1 per cent tax increase in 2021 as the fire service increase is spread out over three years,” Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan said on Facebook. “City council decided on an option that will see the full cost of the increase of eight full-time firefighters to Station 16 in Val Therese spread out over three years.

“In 2021, Valley East residents will pay one-third of the $1.075 million cost, while residents from the rest of the city will pay the other two-thirds. In 2022, Valley East will pay two-thirds of the cost with the rest of the city paying one-third.

“By 2023, Valley East will have assumed the full cost of the increase. If we would have had Valley East pay the full cost in 2021, it would have resulted in a 6.5 per cent increase for Valley residents.”

Residents who live in areas served by volunteer stations will see an increase of either 4.2 per cent (if there is transit service) or 3.7 per cent (where there is no transit); $29 from that increase will be dedicated to the fire service. Had council stuck with status quo, the increase would only have been $3.

Wednesday’s discussion was prompted by an arbitration ruling last fall that indicated Station 16 should be staffed at a career level, with four full-time firefighters at all times. Until recently, it was a composite station, with two career firefighters supplemented by volunteers.

While Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland and Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc said they favoured phasing out area rating entirely, Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo pointed out it would be unjust to impose higher taxes on the Kukagami Lake area, for example, since there is no fire service at all in that Ward 7 hamlet.

Two options that called for the partial or total elimination of area rating were easily defeated.

After some debate, council adopted an option that takes a phased-in approach to the composite area over three years and allocates a portion of composite and career costs to the volunteer area based on call volumes. Because career firefighters respond to six per cent of calls in volunteer areas — the parts of the city served by stations five through 24 — those living in the outlying communities will absorb six per cent of the associated costs. That will be phased in over two years.

“The option selected by council will have the volunteer areas pick up six per cent of the cost of the career service area, which is the former City of Sudbury,” Kirwan noted. “This reflects the fact that since 2015, about six per cent of the fire calls in the volunteer areas are being serviced by career fire crews from Sudbury; therefore, it was felt it was only fair for the volunteer areas, which include all of the former outlying communities with the exception of Valley East, to pay their share of the career service costs.”

Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini, Leduc and Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti voted against the resolution; however, it passed 9-3. Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Vagnini is critical of the plan council adopted. He said Wednesday it is based on the one city, one service model, which is a flawed, if well-intentioned, approach to service delivery.

“The modern world of one city, one service suggests all residents should pay the same, even if not receiving the same level or not receiving the service at all,” Vagnini said.

Were city hall to provide an equitable level of service throughout the city, Vagnini said several changes would be required, totalling hundreds of millions on the shoulders of taxpayers.

Vagnini said the city would require 100 more stations to equalize response times, since career stations are currently only about 6 km apart. Between building new stations, upgrading current fire halls and purchasing new equipment, an additional $600 million would be added to the tax levy. Salaries and benefits would cost taxpayers another $450 million per year.

“Equalizing fire water supply will require massive amounts of linear infrastructure (water supply) throughout the city or the implementation of an accredited tanker shuttle service in a number of areas. No cost is available for either of these,” Vagnini commented.

He also argued that equal service to more than 300 lakes would require boats at each of the larger lakes, or six new boats.

“Few people can tread water at 5 C for over an hour, waiting for water rescue to travel from Skead to Long Lake, Lake Panache, Fairbank Lake, Windy Lake, Vermilion Lake or Lake Wabagisik,” Vagnini said.

The Ward 2 councillor, whose ward relies heavily on volunteer firefighters, said it is simply not “financially feasible to have the one service level in Greater Sudbury and area ratings reflect that reality.”

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