A proposed 2018 budget for the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department that did not include paying firefighters an additional $100 per-month for being emergency medical technicians had Fire Chief Shauwn Howell seeing red Wednesday, and he didn’t hesitate to tell the City Council’s Public Safety Committee what he thought.
Howell said he had submitted the requested increases as part of his budget proposal, but they were deleted in Mayor Shirley Washington’s proposed budget for next year. That budget would give all city employees a 3 percent salary increase — their first raises since 2012. Finance Director Steve Miller said that the across-the-board increase is going to cost the city $530,000.
At a previous meeting of the committee, Howell said his department is losing trained firefighters to other agencies that pay more, and he felt that rewarding them with the extra pay for being a certified EMT would be a way to stem the exodus. He said that for several years, firefighters have been promised more money, but those promises were not kept.
“It’s disheartening,” Howell said. “We are woefully low compared to other departments across the state. We’re training firefighters for other departments.”
Currently, the starting salary for a new firefighter in Pine Bluff is $29,183, Howell said after the meeting, adding that “I got a little heated today, but I am a team player. I am very passionate about this issue.”
All new fire department employees are required to obtain EMT certification during their first year on the job, and any firefighter who is seeking promotion must also be certified. Howell said that about 90 current members of the department have that certification. Many cities around the state offer extra pay for firefighters who have EMT certification.
For example, Jacksonville pays a beginning firefighter with no experience $34,843 annually, but a beginning firefighter with EMT certification earns $37,087. Howell said EMT’s are a “standalone profession” and Pine Bluff is getting a “two for one” by not providing additional compensation for firefighters who are also EMT’s.
The committee, made up of Alderwoman Thelma Walker, Alderman Bill Brumett and Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr., was joined by Alderman Win Trafford for the meeting, with Trafford saying that it was important to retain trained people.
Trafford asked Howell about the cost of training a firefighter.
“It’s about $25,000 per person,” Howell said at the meeting. “Retention is crucial, and now I’ve got to go back as the leader of this department and say the city doesn’t care about us.”
He said current salaries are 15 to 20 percent below salaries in other departments around the state.
Washington, who is completing her first year in office, said neither she nor Trafford, who is also relatively new to office, had made promises to firefighters or other city employees before. She also defended her decision to offer a 3 percent across-the-board increase to all employees.
“We have to look at some things and find a way to stop the bleeding,” she said. “We haven’t been able to plug all the holes yet, but we’re trying to build the morale of employees this first year.”
Washington also said she will be very aggressive in 2018.
“There will be changes that will help the police and fire departments,” she said.
Miller said it would cost the city about $130,000 to fund what Howell was requesting, and the committee moved to accept the fire and emergency services budget with that money added.
“It will be up to the Ways and Means Committee now to find the money if we can,” Brumett said.
The department’s 2018 budget, without funds to pay for the EMT certification, was set at almost $6.6 million. The committee also approved a $717,000 budget for 2018 for 911 communications (Metropolitan Emergency Communication Association), which is above what was adopted in 2017. Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Blevins said the increase is necessary because revenue from land line and cellular telephones is declining.
Funding for MECA comes from fees collected by telephone companies as well as agency funding, with Pine Bluff being assessed just over 70 percent of the total agency funding.
Before the committee adjourned, they approved a request that Washington asked the MECA board for a review of the agency funding since the original breakdown was based on population and Pine Bluff’s has declined. A proposed $10.2 million budget for the police department was also approved with a couple of changes requested by Chief Ivan Whitfield.
One of those deals with increasing salaries for civilian clerks who, although they receive a living wage increase annually, are not paid at the level of other civilian employees. To do that, Whitfield proposed eliminating one police officer position and using that salary to pay for the increases. Whitfield also wants to use what he called a “community officer” who will have law enforcement training in certain circumstances, such as having to tell the family of a homicide victim about the death.
“Our officers are not trained to do that,” Whitfield said, adding that when the family of the latest victim was notified early Wednesday morning, a pastor accompanied police to the family’s house. That person would also be able to fill in as a School Resource Officer if needed.