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Midway FD: Another group backs firefighter pay raises

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A proposal to raise pay for Midway Fire and Rescue picked up new support this week. The board of the Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association adopted a resolution calling for a pay raise for fire and rescue workers. The association represents owners in North Litchfield and Litchfield Beach.

Midway is a special tax district within Georgetown County and has a 10.8-mill tax for operations. The Midway board says low pay has led to high turnover and is costing the county money.

Georgetown County cut pay to all its employees by 3 percent in 2009. It gave one-time increases of 3 percent in 2011 and 2012. The Midway board wants the cut restored permanently and an additional 2 percent to make its pay competitive with neighboring departments.

“It’s costing us a lot to retrain people,” said Ladd Dezendorf, a Midway board member who also serves on the property owners board. “They’re training these people and then they go someplace else for more money.”

Dezendorf said the Midway board’s approach has been to look for cuts elsewhere in the budget, look for another source of funds and then consider a tax increase.

The Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations last month endorsed a pay raise for Midway staff. A North Litchfield resident delivered a petition to County Council in February that also supported the increase.

The POA board endorsed the increase unanimously, but the resolution stopped short of calling for a tax increase to fund raises.

“The county should find it in other areas,” said Libby Gardner, the POA treasurer, who added that “they really do need a pay raise.”

“I’m really pleased with the LBPOA,” Tom Koltak, who chairs the Midway board, said when he learned of the resolution. “That’s terrific.”

He estimates it costs $5,000 to $7,000 in training and equipment every time an employee leaves. Turnover last year was around 25 percent of the 64 employees. That also takes a toll on the pool of applicants. “We’re lucky to get five or six” for a vacancy, Koltak said.

The issue is more pressing this year because the fire district is due for a review by the ISO insurance rating service. Midway has a rating of 4 everywhere except Prince George, which is more than 5 miles by road from a fire station and has a 10 rating.

“If they decide we’re not up to strength,” Koltak said, the rating in the district could rise to a 5. He got one estimate that put the cost of that increase at $70 a year in premiums for every $100,000 of residential property value.

That possibility wasn’t lost on the Litchfield association board. Dezendorf said Midway is working to lower its ISO rating.

For an owner-occupied home, a 1 mill tax increase would cost $4 for every $100,000 in value. It would be $6 for every $100,000 on a second home or business.

County Council Member Jerry Oakley, who attended the POA meeting, said Midway is caught between a static tax base due to the Great Recession and rising costs for items such as fuel and worker’s compensation. “If real estate values go up, the problem will take care of itself,” he said.

Oakley said any increase in the tax rate implemented to increase pay ought to be reduced when revenue begins to rise along with property values.

While that sounds encouraging, Koltak believes it will still be difficult to get County Council to approve an increase. “County Council may be verbalizing some support,” he said. “I will be surprised if they do it.”

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