SUDBURY -- Tough choices are ahead for city council in Greater Sudbury as it looks for ways to save $6.57 million in the 2021 municipal budget to limit next year's property tax increase to 3.9 per cent.

Members of the finance committee will meet Monday afternoon to make their way through a range of options – and risks -- to deal with the gap, which includes revenue losses and higher costs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Added to the 2021 budget is $1.414 million to pay the salaries of full-time firefighters in Valley East, as ordered by provincial arbitration.

In total, the city has about $15.4 million shortfall, minus roughly $8.8 million in reserve and other funding to make up for one-time loses in 2021, leaving a $6.57 million shortfall.

One of the biggest categories proposed to save money in 2021 is classified as "accepting risk." For example, the winter control budget was boosted by 9.8 per cent for 2021 to a total of $22.4 million. Because of severe weather in recent years, winter control has consistently run a deficit and a reserve fund to make up the difference has been emptied.

Winter snowplowing reduction

By reducing service levels for 2021 that trigger how often certain roads are plowed, the city could save as much as $1 million.

"For example, decreasing the service level from an eight cm accumulation to 15 cm accumulation, or increasing the response time from 24 to 48 or even 72 hours could result in increased snowpack on residential roads," the report said. "This would require graders to provide snow plowing services rather than multifunction plows."

One of the major risks is public reaction to the changes, which is acknowledged in the report.

"It is understood that winter road and sidewalk maintenance will attract significant attention from the public," the report said. "Staff’s analysis would include extensive public consultation and some third party assessment so that the result would be, and would be seen to be, a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review of all aspects of the service."

A motion headed to city council would review whether to staff Valley East with full-time firefighters, or convert it to a volunteer force, which would eliminate the need for the added $1.414 million to hire new firefighters.

Another way to save money in 2021 would be to not hire summer students, as the city did in 2020 when the pandemic hit. That saved $1.7 million in 2020.

Reducing some services, such as bylaw enforcement, could save another $800,000.

Longer wait times

"Any adjustments in these categories have direct service level impacts," the report said. "Adjustments could create longer wait times for requests, unsupervised areas of the city (such as waterfronts) as well as reductions in summer and winter leisure programming. Summer students often provide direct service to the public."

On the ground, students pick up litter, conduct traffic counts for the roads department, provide playground programs, act as lifeguards at city beaches and maintain city fields and trails.

Reducing library, museum and archives services could save another $500,000, and delaying debt repayments to 2022 could save another $1.6 million. Cutting travel budgets could save another $250,000.

Delaying plans to build 20 electric vehicle charging stations and delaying transit fare incentive packages would also save money for 2021.

Other options include new or increased user fees for city services -- such as a new landfill tipping fee or boat launch fee – and closing some facilities, such as fire halls, arenas and pools. The total is more than $6.6 million, which would bring the tax increase to the 3.9 per cent limit for 2021.

The finance committee meets at 5 p.m. The full report, and the link to watch the live broadcast of the meeting, can be found here.