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Budgets: Midway FD pay campaign leads to 5% raises for all

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

In response to public demands for higher pay at Midway Fire and Rescue, Georgetown County Council voted Tuesday for tax increases to provide all county employees 5 percent raises.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway proposed two options last week during a workshop: 3 percent pay raises without tax increases and 5 percent raises with tax increases. Proposed tax hikes would include: General Fund, .6 mills; Law Enforcement, .4 mills; County Fire District, 1.9 mills and Midway Fire District, .8 mills.

For property owners in the Midway tax district, the increases mean $7.20 for every $100,000 in market value for an owner-occupied home and $10.80 for every $100,000 for commercial and rental property.

“As we’re losing county employees, particularly fire and EMS, we’ve overlooked what it costs to train them,” Council Member Ron Charlton said during the workshop. “We have to do something for these employees.” Charlton said this is the first time in his 16 years on County Council that he has supported a tax hike.

Council Member Leona Myers-Miller said at the workshop that she wanted to find a way forward without a tax increase despite the “massive amount of conversation that somebody’s got to get more pay.” She said she would settle for putting off larger raises for one more year in order to hold the line on taxes. The “massive amount of conversation” was a reference to residents in the Midway Fire Tax District seeking a tax increase in order to reduce the number of trained firefighters and paramedics leaving for better pay and stave off a potentially larger increase in home fire insurance rates. Council members were hesitant to raise taxes for Midway without considering other employees, especially county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies.

“We need to give janitors the same kind of consideration we give Midway,” Council Member Lilly Jean Johnson said at the workshop. “What we do for one, we need to do for all. I’m an advocate for treating everyone the same.”

The Midway Fire and Rescue Board chairman, Tom Koltak, said the proposed raises aren’t high enough to stop trained firefighters and paramedics from leaving for higher pay at other departments.

“I’m pleased they gave raises,” he said Wednesday, “but that won’t stop the exodus.” Koltak figured 5 percent raises would bring a firefighter’s base pay from $26,600 to $27,930. That, he said, is still $3,500 below the average starting pay in the area.

“The quality of services the council was sworn to protect and uphold will not be enough,” he said. “Turnover for firefighters and deputies in the county is 25 to 40 percent. How many people are leaving the tax office and their desk jobs?” he said.

Morgan Lowery, a doctor from North Litchfield, had asked council members to give all 64 Midway employees $5,000 pay raises. She presented petitions asking for a tax increase to support the raises. Fears are that with so many trained firefighters leaving, Midway’s rating will drop and house insurance costs will soar far beyond any tax increase.

Council Member Jerry Oakley says the Midway Fire Tax District is a phenomenon unlike anything he’s seen in his tenure in office.

“It’s held in high esteem and affection,” he said during last week’s workshop. “I have never seen a higher level of support for a pay increase. It’s difficult to describe.”

Oakley said he has discovered a “new normal” in regard to firefighters and law enforcement officers. “Their skill set is vastly more comprehensive,” he said. “Nobody is asking me to go into a burning building or stop a suspect at night. The market value of that skill set is increasing faster than others.”

Oakley said losing trained employees costs more than dealing with the pay problem in supporting the 5 percent raises. “This is all the law allows,” he said. “It’s a short-term fix. The long-term will require us to be the best managers of the taxpayers’ funds. The county is blessed with good people. We’ve got to pay them adequately if we want to deliver the services our taxpayers expect.”

Council Member Bob Anderson said the rest of the world has passed Georgetown County by in regards to emergency services pay. Most of Midway’s employees are at the low end of the department’s own wage scales.

Anderson wants to compare the competition’s pay scales and align the Midway midpoints with those. “What we need to do is get ourselves back in line,” he said.

Council backs tax increase after looking for cuts

Georgetown County Council Member Bob Anderson wanted the county to stop mowing the grass and paying the light bills at 17 community parks in order to save some money for employee pay raises.

He proposed turning over maintenance and utilities at the smaller parks to community volunteers Tuesday and saving

$112,000. His proposal did not include the bigger county recreation facilities.

Anderson said the most frequent complaint he hears is, “Why are we doing all these things for Parks and Recreation?” He moved to amend the county budget by cutting park maintenance and utility funds and reallocating the money to employee salaries.

“That’s not going to work in my district,” Council Member Leona Myers-Miller said. “That’s just not right. We can cut back some place else. Cut supplies, reduce mileage, not maintenance for our parks.”

Council Member Ron Charlton, who seconded Anderson’s motion, didn’t support him in the end. “I appreciate what Bob has done,” Charlton said, “but I think we have to move forward now and seek more efficiency in the coming months. There are areas I have in mind.”

Anderson’s proposal was defeated by a vote of 6-1 and provided a glimpse of county budgeting that didn’t stay behind the scenes. Council members voted on second reading Tuesday to raise property taxes in order to give county employees a pay increase of 2 percent in addition to a 3 percent pay hike proposed without raising taxes.

During a budget workshop last week, Charlton suggested County Administrator Sel Hemingway get “lean and mean” with expenses, bringing retirees back to work to save medical insurance costs and using more part-time employees.

As for full-time employees, Charlton said, it was time to “stop kicking the can down the road” and restore the pay that was cut four years ago in next year’s $64.3 million budget. Those 3 percent pay cuts were mitigated in two subsequent years with bonus payments.

Without compounded cost of living increases over the past five years, Hemingway said, county employees have lost double-digit purchasing power. “To be made whole,” he said, “employees would have to be given an 11.5 percent increase on top of the 3 percent.” He cautioned that any solution addressing employee pay must be sustainable. “It’s foolish to give employees more money and not be able to sustain it,” he said.

Sheriff Lane Cribb presented council members with what Hemingway called a “bare bones budget” containing 3 percent raises for employees and projecting a 2.5 percent increase in expenditures every year going forward. The sheriff’s budget contained four positions authorized but not filled in order to contain costs. Projections presented to council members showed the sheriff’s office running deficits beginning in 2016 without more revenue.

“The sheriff wants to do that,” Hemigway said, “and hopes that things will get better.”

Cribb said this week that he will continue to work with County Council and save dollars where he can in order to catch up salaries of employees.

Myers-Miller suggested approving the sheriff’s budget and increase millage later during last week’s workshop. “It’s not a sustainable model,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said. “They will go off a cliff.”

The county fire department will run a $7,000 deficit this year and a projected $23,000 deficit in 2014 without corrective action, Hemingway said. “We realize there are problems with county fire,” he said. “They cover a vast expanse of area with a low tax base.”

Providing Midway Fire and Rescue employees 3 percent raises without tax increases would put operations in the red immediately and drain its fund balance from $1.1 million to just over $828,000 by 2018, according to projections. Projections presented to council members for the .8 tax millage increase at Midway would provide $240,800. The additional 2 percent compensation increases would cost $46,851 with the remainder providing resources to address salary issues that will be identified in an upcoming wage and salary analysis and the department’s reserves, according to Hemingway.

Council Member Bob Anderson said Midway requires short-term and long-term planning. “We know what the short-term fix will cost us,” he said. “This may not ever fix our long-term problem.”

Anderson said the Midway fund balance seemed too high, but Oakley reminded him that a major storm would affect the Waccamaw Neck area tax base more than others. “You could make the case,” Oakley said, “that their fund balance ought to be higher.”

Anderson said Oakley’s explanation made sense and he was willing to “fall on his sword” regarding the Midway fund balance.

When asked about the county’s experience after Hurricane Hugo, Hemingway said, “the only thing we can say is that we survived it.”

Oakley said the county’s ability to recover from a big storm would depend on being declared a federal disaster area and qualifying for relief. “We can have substantial damage,” he said, “and not be declared a disaster area. Then, we would be on our own.”

The private sector, Anderson said, looks at cutting costs before thinking about more revenue. “What can we cut from within?” he asked. Hemingway said one factor that has impacted county employees over the past five years is the fact that the private sector has raised prices when cost-cutting was not effective enough. “Over the past four years,” Hemingway said, “we have had a balanced budget with no tax increases and no reduction in services. We have scrutinized the budget line by line and gone to our personnel and elected officials and asked them to cut line items.”

Anderson asked if the county should reduce non-essential services before raising millage.

“Who says what’s essential?” asked Council Member Austin Beard. “We’ve asked our employees to step up and accept a pay cut. It’s time to restore the faith and trust they had in us.”

Even though Tuesday’s vote was on second reading, a public hearing will be held on the budget June 11. [E-Mail Article To a Friend]

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