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Safety: County raises pay for first responders

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

With the lowest starting salaries in the region, Georgetown County has been the training ground for law enforcement and public safety employees for years. Newly trained sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical technician-firefighters were leaving the county and Midway Fire and Rescue for better pay at more than a dozen other places.

County Council members approved a four-year phased plan Tuesday to raise salaries of 586 law enforcement, Emergency Medical Service and general service employees by an average of 11.1 percent. The total cost of the raises and increased benefits will be $2.9 million.

“This problem was not created overnight and, unfortunately, it can’t be corrected overnight,” said Sel Hemingway, the county administrator. “But we do recognize the need to rectify this issue, and we’re taking steps to do so beginning almost immediately.”

Raises will begin with the employees’ second paycheck in January.

Tom Koltak, chairman of the board of Midway Fire and Rescue, called the $2.9 million “no big deal” for the county. Six new houses are under construction in his neighborhood within Willbrook Plantation. County growth shows the need for impact fees and tax hikes, he said.

Still, Koltak was happy with the action resulting from the salary study that began last July. “Any increase is great,” he said, “but Murrells Inlet-Garden City is giving $1,500 raises and they’re already $3,000 ahead of us.”

Georgetown County Sheriff Lane Cribb said he hopes the raises help him keep officers once they are trained.

“I have been working with County Council on pay discrepancies for some time now,” he said. “I appreciate their efforts in addressing salary increases for our deputies and hope it will help us retain good people.”

After a public outcry over the low starting salaries at Midway Fire and Rescue, the county granted its first cost-of-living raises in four years last summer and initiated a wage and salary review for “problem positions” that included the sheriff’s office, fire departments and administrative jobs with high turnover rates.

The review showed that starting salaries for emergency services employees were an average of 13.6 percent below those offered by competing counties and municipalities. Starting salaries for law enforcement and general services workers were 10.4 percent below average. Bringing county employees up to the average salary in the region will mean an additional $1,779 a year for each once the plan is fully implemented in fiscal 2018.

Hemingway pointed out that state law limits millage hikes to the Consumer Price Index figured in conjunction with a county’s population increase. The plan, he added, may require modification if state law limits the ability of the county to increase millage.

The average annual millage increase required through 2018 to pay for the adjustments in the Midway Fire District would be the equivalent of $5.10 on a primary residence valued at $100,000.

In the unincorporated western portion of the county, the annual average would be $6.30 on a $100,000 home.

The remainder of the county, including incorporated areas, would see an annual average increase of $4 on a $100,000 home.

Employees will get 40 percent of the raise in January, and 20 percent each of the next three budget years along with the cost-of-living raises given to all employees.

“The plan is sustainable,” Hemingway said. The county will remain above an $8 million fund balance every year.

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