City councillors are continuing deliberations this week on the finalization of a budget for 2021.
One of the important decisions during these budget discussions was made March 9. That was when city councillors met for Round No. 2 of the debate on the fire service level adjustments that had to be made as a result of an interest arbitration award from last August.
At that time, the city was ordered to add two more full-time firefighters to the existing two-person crew at Station 16 in Val Therese. Since October, two firefighters have been assigned to work overtime at Station 16 to make sure that we have a minimum of four full-time career firefighters on duty at all times in compliance with the award.
Tuesday night, city councillors were presented with three options regarding fire protection service level adjustments that would address the arbitration award. We were advised by our General Manager of Community Safety that all three of the options would have increased the risk level for residents.
The fourth option, which was introduced and amended last night, and which was the option that was accepted by city council, called for the hiring of eight full-time firefighters for Station 16 so that there will always be four career firefighters on duty at all times.
This is an enhancement of the fire protection level that existed in Valley East prior to the arbitration award. Valley East has always had at least two full-time firefighters on duty and now the residents will be served with a complete crew of four, similar to the crews that serve the former City of Sudbury residents.
We will also be serviced by our regular complement of volunteer firefighters from Val Caron, Hanmer and Val Therese.
The decision will add $1,075,000 to the fire budget for 2021, but under the current area rating policy, that cost will be borne entirely by the property owners in Valley East. It will add approximately three per cent to the 2021 tax levy for fire services alone.
Area rating for fire services has been in place since amalgamation in 2001. At that time, it was decided that because the cost of fire services in the former City of Sudbury was so much higher than the rest of the amalgamated municipalities, a formula would be applied to the tax policy that resulted in three different levels of taxation to reflect the actual cost of fire services in those respective areas.
The former City of Sudbury became known as the ‘career area’. That has always had the highest rating because of the cost of full-time career firefighters. There are no volunteer firefighters working out of the stations in the career area.
The second area was the former City of Valley East. As stated, Valley East has always had two full-time career firefighters on duty at all times, along with a full complement of volunteer firefighters supporting the career crew. This became known as the ‘composite area’ because it was the only amalgamated municipality that had a combination of volunteer and career firefighters.
The total tax levy for property owners in Valley East had been reduced by about four per cent per year of what people pay in the former City of Sudbury in recognition of the lower amount needed to pay for the composite fire protection level. The decision last night to increase the number of full-time firefighters to the same level as the career area will close the gap by about three per cent.
The final area included all portions of the City of Greater Sudbury outside of the former City of Valley East and the former City of Sudbury. These municipalities had volunteer firefighters only prior to amalgamation, and so their tax levy is about eight per cent lower than the former City of Sudbury in recognition of the costs of the volunteer service.
However, since 2015, at least one full-time crew from the career area has been deployed to fire and critical incidents in the volunteer areas in order to ensure a guaranteed response.
Our fire chief found that it was impossible to predict how many volunteers were going to show up to a fire or critical incident, and so in order to ensure an immediate response, a full-time crew of four firefighters from one of the Sudbury stations has been dispatched to fires in these areas, too.
However, there has never been any adjustment made to the area rating for this enhanced service to the volunteer areas. So, while the residents of the former City of Sudbury have been paying for the full cost of career firefighters in the career area, all of the other volunteer areas have been benefiting from the use of those full-time firefighters, but not paying for the benefit.
Additionally, now that Station No. 16 will have a full-time crew of four career firefighters on duty at all times, the full-time crew from Valley East will likely be used as a guaranteed response to nearby volunteer areas as well.
Because of all of this, it may very well be time to put an end to the area rating for fire services and spread the cost of fire services across the entire City of Greater Sudbury on the general tax levy.
Council also passed a motion last night directing staff to come back with a report on how we can enhance the recruitment, training and retention of volunteer firefighters. Currently, we are about 145 volunteers short of our complement of 350. This report, along with discussion about the final tax policy in April, could lead to some transitional adjustments to the overall area rating for fire protection services.
Robert Kirwan is the city councillor for Ward 5.