THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay residents can expect significant expansions to paramedic services and bylaw enforcement after city council reviewed large portions of the 2022 municipal budget on Thursday.
Councillors made only minor adjustments to the proposed budget prepared by city administration, with the tax levy increase left at 2.28 per cent after growth, up a barely-perceptible 0.01 per cent.
The levy increase is 2.34 per cent before accounting for new assessment growth, which councillors heard Tuesday was an anemic $117,000, or 0.06 per cent, in 2021.
The levy increase doesn’t exactly match the hike residents will see on their tax bills, which is also influenced by property assessment changes and the education tax rate.
On Thursday, councillors reviewed sections of the budget including public transit, recreation and culture, EMS and fire services, and funding for agencies like the public library and parking authority.
Council signalled endorsement of a major expansion to the city’s licensing and enforcement division. It's hoped the move will reduce strain on police services and slash what administration admitted are “extremely long” response times to bylaw enforcement complaints, averaging two weeks.
The 2022 budget adds 3.43 full-time equivalent staff in the division, though the impact on the ground will be slightly higher thanks to internal restructuring, making the equivalent of 12 full-time enforcement officers available in total, said manager Doug Vincent.
The expansion, which also includes the purchase of new vehicles, would put officers on shift on evenings and weekends, a longtime council priority. Vincent said the change depends on negotiations with CUPE that remain ongoing, but expressed optimism.
The changes will see the division’s budget jump 37 per cent to roughly $1.5 million. Spending increases on staff are projected to be partially offset by higher revenues, thanks to additional enforcement.
A substantial budget increase to Superior North EMS, along with even larger investments from the province, will support major staffing and service expansions.
City funding of Superior North EMS will increase 4.6 per cent, to $12.3 million.
The agency's total budget of over $32 million also includes about $20 million from the province and $3 million from other district municipalities.
The province has committed $6.5 million over three years to support the agency’s community paramedicine program, which provides home care to seniors. It’s intended to substantially curb health care costs by cutting ER visits and long-term care occupancy, helping people stay at home longer. Superior North EMS recently reported promising initial results.
The program will add 15 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, fully funded by the province for the duration of the three-year pilot project.
Staffing at Superior North EMS will rise by 24 FTEs overall in 2022, with another eight new positions supporting an expansion of two ambulances to 12-hour service. All but two of the new positions had been approved by council in 2021.
The city is also budgeting nearly $2 million in capital costs for the EMS service. That includes around $800,000 toward the replacement of four ambulances that are reaching end of life, and will be replaced in 2024 at a total estimated cost of $2.7 million.
Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, meanwhile, managed to largely contain costs as it implements staffing reductions outlined in its new master plan. Its net budget is set to rise 2.3 per cent, to roughly $32.6 million.
The city will also budget $500,000 towards replacement of a 20-year-old pumper truck, which is estimated to cost $900,000 in total and be delivered in 2024.
Both EMS and fire services will benefit from a new joint program providing rapid access to a contracted psychologist for paramedics and firefighters.
Councillors were enthusiastic about the step, saying at $96,000 a year, the program will not only better support first responders, but hopefully rein in ballooning mental health-related WSIB and lost time costs. The city's total WSIB costs are pegged at $5.8 million this year, a slight decrease.
“I have many friends who [work in] emergency services who are currently off on sick leave,” said Coun. Cody Fraser. “To be completely frank, the services that are provided right now are completely inadequate.”
“Coun. Ruberto has [said he’ll bring] forward a motion to add $1 million to the police budget to [hire] more police. I can tell you right now, we don’t need more police officers - we need more police officers back at work, and I think the same thing could be said for EMS and fire.”
The city also reviewed the funding it provides to three outside agencies, the public library, parking authority, and Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board.
The Thunder Bay Public Library argued stagnant city funding is eroding its service levels, seeking an increase of 3.3 per cent, to $6.4 million.
A large part of that will fund a new approach to library security, replacing “reactive” contracted security officers with in-house “pro-active safety providers.”
The TBPL said the new approach will be more effective in defusing incidents of conflict, and avert calls to police and EMS.
A letter from the library’s board of directors warned council its budget was “at a breaking point,” after no meaningful increases in city spending over the past decade, outside of negotiated wage increases for staff.
“Over a decade’s worth of inflation and cost increases, including COVID safety and PPE costs, have been absorbed without additional help,” the board wrote. “This has stretched our budget to the limits and we’re seeing the signs in deteriorating services and buildings.”
The TBPL’s collections budget puts it in the bottom 25 per cent of Ontario cities in spending per capita, the board said, pointing to Canadian Urban Libraries Council data. The letter also claimed the library’s physical space is less than half the per capita amount suggested in provincial standards.
The board noted the library had voluntarily returned $300,000 over the past two years to the city, in part reflecting savings from pandemic closures.
The TBPL's capital forecast includes $6 million in 2025 and 2026 to renew the Brodie and Waverley branches. That amount is based on a 2011 facilities master plan, the library said, with an updated plan including revised cost estimates to be developed this year.
The Thunder Bay Parking Authority's operations are set to cost the city just shy of $500,000 in 2022, slightly less than was budgeted last year. However, the agency lost closer to $950,000 in estimated actuals for 2021.
Further changes to the budget are possible until Feb. 7, when a final ratification vote is scheduled. The next budget review session on Jan. 26 will consider items including a controversial police request for a $56 million new headquarters.
Learn more about the city's budget process and how to provide feedback.