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Public safety: Lagging pay drives turnover at Midway Fire and Rescue
By Jackie R. Broach
Starting salaries at Midway Fire and Rescue are about $4,250 below the average pay in other departments in the region — a fact that’s contributing to a high employee turnover rate, according to Dick Faulk, the Midway board chairman.
Faulk’s term on the board expires next month, and in one of his final acts, he made a plea to County Council this week to consider a “substantial wage increase for the county’s first responders” in next year’s budget.
“I can’t speak for county fire or the sheriff’s office, but in the last two years, Midway Fire and Rescue has lost 29 firefighters,” Faulk said. “That’s almost 50 percent of our department.”
A majority of those who resigned gave low wages as their primary reason, he added. The starting salary for firefighters at Midway is $26,736. The starting salary is $27,405 at Georgetown City Fire Department and ranges upward at a number of other departments in Georgetown, Horry and Charleston counties to $34,836 at North Myrtle Beach Fire Department.
While Faulk commended council’s foresight in creating a long-term capital improvement plan and vehicle replacement programs that provide up-to-date equipment, “I have to point out that you have neglected the most important part of the equation,” he said. “Midway firefighters are going into the fourth budget cycle without a pay raise.”
Faced with declining revenues and a budget shortfall, council issued a 3-percent pay cut and put cost of living increases on hold for county employees in 2009. Employees received a one-time salary supplement last year, but the county wasn’t in a position yet to reinstate annual raises.
County Council Member Bob Anderson is sympathetic to the situation Faulk outlined and would like to see firefighters get better pay, but said “it’s not that simple.” He said he opposed a recent land purchase largely because he dosen’t agree with that kind of spending when county employees have gone so long without a raise and face rising costs for food and gasoline.
But when raises are given, it can’t be for just one year. The county would have to come up with the extra money to fund the raises annually.
Raising tax rate for the Midway tax district, which runs from DeBordieu to North Litchfield, is one possible way to fund raises, but Anderson said he wouldn’t support a tax increase.
If a tax increase was approved to fund a raise for Midway employees, “it would open up a door for other firefighters to say, ‘hey, I want a raise, too.’ Then you have the police wanting to know where their raise is, then the people in public services,” Anderson said. “We’d have a riot on our hands.”
There is a “not insignificant” cost associated with high employee turnover, Faulk pointed out to council. New employees have to get a physical, vaccinations, uniforms and turnout gear, and a lot of training to meet state and department requirements. He estimates those costs to total about $5,000 per Midway employee.
Added to that is the cost of additional overtime costs resulting from turnover, which is estimated at about $83,000 over a 12-month period.
“On top of the financial loss, the community loses experienced firefighters, EMTs and paramedics,” Faulk said.
He noted that Midway requires firefighters to also be trained EMTs while departments in Georgetown and Conway, which are among those where starting salaries are higher, require only firefighter training.
The county has previously looked into the turnover rate at Midway, according to Anderson and found the percentage of those who left because of pay issues was “not that large.”
Some moved to pursue a higher rank while some wanted to move back closer to their hometown. Others left for a job at another department and didn’t like it, so they ended up coming back to Midway, Anderson said.
But Faulk’s appeal “certainly raises a valid question,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said. “Midway’s service is very important to folks in the Midway service area and we need to pay close attention to maintaining service at the level everybody wants and expects.”
Whether pay levels are causing Midway to lose staff to other departments will be examined in the upcoming budget process.
“We’ll research it again and take appropriate action,” he said.