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Midway FD: Support builds for tax hike to raise firefighter pay

By Charles Swenson and Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Chris Stier left Midway Fire and Rescue this year for Mount Pleasant, one of the 15 firefighters who have left the department in the last 10 months. But he showed up this week at a meeting to show support for a proposal to give his former colleagues a raise.

Starting pay at Midway lags other departments in the area and turnover of trained firefighters and emergency medical workers at Midway is running at 25 percent. Midway is a separate tax district within Georgetown County and its board wants to raise salaries an average of $5,000 for its 64 employees. Even with that, starting pay would still lag Horry County by about $2,400, according to Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman.

Would it be enough to bring back former employees like Stier? “I would consider it,” he said. “It’s not all about the money.”

The Midway board has asked Georgetown County Council to raise taxes in the district, which covers the area from Brookgreen Gardens to DeBordieu. But Council Member Jerry Oakley, one of three who represent the Midway coverage area, said raising pay in the district will be difficult without an increase for firefighters in the western part of the county or the sheriff’s office, which is also plagued by high turnover.

Three new Midway firefighters started work Monday. There is still one vacancy, said

See “Midway,” Page 4

From Front Page

Bob Beebe, the department spokesman. Monday night, off-duty firefighters, families and Midway board members met with members of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations to explain the problems the department faces.

“They’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said Nancy Crawford, wife of Midway’s assistant chief, who pointed out that the $26,736 starting salary for firefighters must be reduced by taxes, health and pension contributions to get a realistic pay figure.

“I find it appalling that we pay men and women so little for the kind of work they do,” said Steve Harris, a Midway board member.

A tax increase of 1 mill ($4 for every $100,000 of assessed value on an owner-occupied home) would raise enough money for the $5,000 pay increase.

Eggiman said he figured each turnover costs about $20,000 in lost training, equipment, recruitment and staff time to handle the workload until a replacement is hired. Because Midway has few actual fires, it places an extra emphasis on training, he said. That makes its employees more attractive to other departments. And demand for trained emergency personnel is increasing, he said.

Midway’s situation was further complicated because the recession that reduced property tax collections came at a time when salaries were due for an increase. Instead, the county cut all pay by 3 percent.

“We’re gradually getting farther behind,” Eggiman said.

Oakley said the 1-mill tax increase makes sense financially, but won’t work politically. “You have to provide the political cover so council will act,” he told the property owners group, which endorsed the pay plan last month. “Show council you won’t hang us by our thumbs if we solve this problem.”

He doesn’t think a majority of the seven-member council will vote for a pay increase that doesn’t include all emergency services, and he’s doubtful there is support for a county-wide tax increase. But Oakley said he will work for a Midway-only solution if necessary. “I have a passionate feeling about this,” he said.

Oakley said he also believes that the county needs to recognize the competition for trained emergency service workers and create a separate pay scale for those jobs.

Supporters of the Midway pay plan also went to County Council this week.

Morgan Lowry, a doctor who lives in North Litchfield, asked Council two months ago to consider raises. She was more forceful Tuesday.

“This is less of a plea and more of a challenge,” Lowry said. “Midway is facing a crisis of retention of experienced firefighters through substandard salaries.”

Lowry said she was representing 160 residents and business owners who had signed a petition supporting the tax increase for Midway.

“We as taxpayers implore you to fix this problem now with the tools we are giving you,” she said. “If the assertion is that Midway can’t be addressed without the sheriff and the county, yes you can. Make the adjustment at our own expense.”

Tom Koltak, who chairs the Midway board, said fire insurance rate hikes could be on the way. He said he expects an increase of $210 a year on his own house if Midway’s rating falls from 4 to 5. “If they see our turnover rate — and we’ve lost 15 people already — I am concerned about our next ISO review. If we continue to lose people, our overtime rate will continue to go up.”

The board of the Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association endorsed a pay raise for firefighters last week but stopped short of supporting a tax increase. Most speakers on Tuesday were demanding it.

Joe Gabriel, a member of the Midway board, said they unanimously supported an increase in pay.

“The Waccamaw community has properly trained and equipped its personnel,” he said. “Therein lies part of the problem. After training, members move on to higher paying jobs elsewhere.”

Gabriel asked that the county restore money lost in the 3 percent pay cut and add money to make pay at Midway competitive.

“Firefighters like and respect their jobs,” he said, “and take great pride in what they do. They still have families to support. It costs the department between $5,000 and $7,000 every time one leaves. Turnover of 25 percent takes a toll.”

Dick Faulk, a former Midway board chairman, told council that a 10-year veteran of Midway Fire and Rescue had recently left the department to change careers. “We are losing the experience we need,” he said. “An aging community needs experienced paramedics.”

Half of Midway employees have been with the department less than five years, according to Eggiman.

Steve Kelsey of North Litchfield, a former member of Midway who left for a higher paying job at Coastal Carolina University, said firefighter pay is a safety issue.

“You are responsible for public safety,” he told council members. “Remember the oath you took. Act responsibly. Give these public servants the raises they need.”

Mak Kelliher, a former FBI agent who serves on the Sheriff’s Office Advisory Board, said deputies have felt the economic downturn personally and professionally. “We see a trend starting,” he said, “losing more and more people going forward.”

Bob Meltzer, chairman of the Georgetown County Fire Department board, said county firefighters are feeling the same pinch. “Month in and month out,” he said, “we talk about the turnover rate and shortage of pay. We spend thousands on training and gear and it’s wasted. Without people, trucks and stations cannot fight a fire.”

Council Member Bob Anderson said Wednesday the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface. A pay raise for some employees, and not others, could lead to problems.

“We’ve been working on this problem for six months,” Anderson said. “People don’t think we’re doing anything, but we are considering every angle and will have a solution to the problem.”

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