|Bellevue Dayton Fire Department Chief Chris Adkins makes the case for more competitive compensation for fire personnel.|
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by Robin Gee, city council beat editor
The cities of Bellevue and Dayton, Kentucky, share the services of the Bellevue-Dayton Fire/EMS Department, and they also share in the responsibility to ensure the service can attract and keep the best and the brightest when it comes to fire fighters and paramedics.
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With this in mind, the city councils of both cities voted at their August meetings to amend their budgets for Fiscal Year 2021-2022 with significant salary increases for fire personnel.
At the first reading of the budget amendment in July, Bellevue City Administrator Frank Warnock explained the cities’ proposal. There would be a salary increase of $4,500 a year added to the base pay. Current personnel would receive that bump plus an additional $4,500 for services already rendered (He noted he could not technically call it a bonus).
The cost to each city would be $140,000, said Warnock, and that figure takes into consideration the pension implications, budgeted overtime and unscheduled overtime.
Working on the issue
As the budget process began, council members and mayors had heard from Fire Chief Chris Adkins and others about the difficulties in attracting new personnel to open positions as well as keeping firefighter/paramedics on staff when other fire departments in the area were offering much higher pay.
Prior to the July meeting, Bellevue and Dayton officials met with the fire chief and other members of the Fire Department to discuss the issue.
In addition, the Fire Service Board had also met to talk about the issue. The board includes the mayors of both cities, two council members from each city and one citizen at large. At the meeting, both Bellevue council members of that board, Pat Hogan and Steve Guidugli, spoke strongly in favor of pay increases.
Recruitment and retention woes
Chief Adkins outlined the problem he faces, "I’ve been talking about this since I became chief, three years now. We’ve continued to lose people. Since 2017, we’ve lost 10 people, most of them have been to higher paying jobs, a couple retirements. We’ve always figured out a way to make it work, but the well is running dry. I’m short a person right now, and it’s burning into my overtime budget," he said.
He praised his firefighter/paramedics for their hard work and dedication, noting that, because the department has been short, his people have worked double and triple shifts. He said his team is stretched as it is, and he cannot afford to lose anyone.
"We get that the cities are not fiscally flush," he said. "There’s other departments, there’s police, there’s public works. And, we’re not trying to compete with some of the other larger cities, but we need to stay competitive."
He added that his department has a good work culture, and people want to stay, but work culture only goes so far when people know they can go to a nearby fire department and make $15,000 to $20,000 more a year.
Recently, he said, he posted a job with the base salary offer of $45,000. In the same week both Florence and Covington posted similar job openings. Florence is offering $59,000, while Covington positions start in the low $60,000 range. He received no applications for his open position.
Now that the cities have agreed to raise the pay, he said he will post again. "I’m hopeful," he said, reiterating that he did not expect the two cities, with their revenue bases, to be able to match what some other cities are paying but he wants to stay competitive. The raise will help with that considerably, he added.
How the cities plan to pay for the raises
For Bellevue, Warnock noted that they had $178,000 in unexpected additional revenue this year and would take the money from that. The city will continue to discuss how to adjust future budgets to take into account the need to provide competitive compensation for both fire and police personnel, he said.
Guidugli shared an idea the city should explore for the future. "Years ago we had an aerial truck...At the time the city of Bellevue put a tax on insurance, and that was solely to buy the aerial. The aerial has come and gone. The tax is still there. I think we might be able to take a look at that insurance tax and have that as a way to fund either the fire department or other conduit so we don’t get so far behind. We could take a percentage of that, and it goes just for fire protection, or for police protection or both."
Council members for both Bellevue and Dayton, at their respective meetings, expressed concern about being able to fund increases, but all agreed they were a necessity.
"Public safety is job one in cities," said Warnock. "That’s the most basic thing, where we start as cities with what we offer our citizens, and that’s what we have to remind ourselves of. All the other stuff is icing on the cake. This is bare bones necessity."
Chief Adkins shared the plan with his staff and said they were pleased and grateful. "I think the plan that you have all come up with is fair and equitable...You are showing these guys that the city is serious, and we want to keep them. At the end of the day, we’re trying to provide fire and EMS for both cities."