Money divides Fulton firefighters and city council

2 years 9 months 4 weeks ago Monday, September 21 2015 Sep 21, 2015 Monday, September 21, 2015 8:25:00 PM CDT September 21, 2015 in News
By: Derek Brizendine, KOMU 8 Reporter
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FULTON - Deciding between providing for his family or working with his firefighter family is one of the toughest decisions Joey Mirth said he has recently had to make.

"Basically you get to a point where you love your job," Mirth said. "I still miss it but you start to look at the pay, $21,000 a year. It doesn't really put much food on the table, much less pay a house payment or rent."

Mirth worked for two years as a Fulton firefighter. He said he loved working as a firefighter but at the end of the day he wasn't able to financially support his family on his own.

As a Fulton firefighter Mirth was only making about 500 dollars every two weeks and was living off food stamps. This forced Mirth into working four jobs just to make ends meet.

In order to work his way off food stamps, Mirth resigned as a firefighter in order to pursue a start up business from home. He said he wasn't in the job for the money; he did it because it was something he loved to do. He said he would go back in heartbeat if the pay was better and the firefighters were shown some respect.

"If they paid a living wage I would still work there," Mirth said. "I wouldn't have left. No doubt in my mind."

Mirth is one example of the recent salary debate, which has divided the Fulton city council and the Fulton firefighters union.

According to city documents, a Fulton firefighter will make $26,305 a year, a fire engineer will make $32,691 a year, and a fire captain will make $37,482 a year.

In recent contract negotiations between the firefighters union and the city council, the union asked for a 9 percent pay increase for all firefighters in the union, which the city denied.

Bill Johnson, Fulton director of administration, said the council appreciates all its employees but didn't find it fair to give a subset group of city employees a raise without giving all employees one.

"The city of Fulton appreciates its firefighters," Johnson said. "They do a job that very few people would want to do."

However, he said the extra nine percent pay increase, on top of the five percent pay increase all city employees received at the beginning of the year, would have been a 14 percent pay increase in 2015 and said the council didn't find that to be appropriate to give.

At the beginning of the year, the Fulton city council performed a salary survey that compared cities of similar size and services provided in order to see where Fulton compared with other salary wages. Johnson said it was time to get an update of the numbers because the last survey hadn't been done for eight or nine years.

When the survey was sent out, Johnson said the council asked for those who received the survey to give a range of pay for each position in the city. The survey also asked the recipient to give the average salary of the specified job.

The council then took the average salary given and compared it to what Fulton was paying its employees. Johnson said if an average was not given, the council took the median of the lowest paying wage and highest paying wage for that position.

After gathering the data, the council added the average pay given for each position in each of the participating cities, including Fulton, and averaged them out. The council then took the overall average and compared it to the average pay of the corresponding Fulton employee.

After the survey, Johnson said the council saw several city positions were underpaid compared to those who completed the survey. He said the council values all city employees and wants to do right by all of them.

However, Johnson said the council isn't able to give a raise in the middle of September because the budget won't allow for it.

"I think the city council wants to do right by all 190 city employees with the implementation of the 2016 operating budget, rather than single out 20 employees and give them a raise now," Johnson said.

Johnson said there are only a limited number of revenues the city has to work with in order to provide the city with the services required. He said the problem arises when revenues stay the same and demands continue to grow.

Terry Luebbert, firefighter supporter, said she understands the city only has so many resources but it must find a way to pay each position properly based on the difficulty of the job.

Luebbert, who comes from a family of firefighters, said when she saw in the paper that firefighters, in Fulton, were only making $8.65 and hour, it seemed ridiculous. She said she felt the firefighters deserved more money because they put their lives on the line everyday for the safety of other.

According to the survey, Fulton firefighters are paid nine percent below the average of those surveyed. Fire engineers were shown to be one percent above the average and fire captains were seven percent below the average.

Luebbert said both sides need to come together and get a fair wage worked out because she thinks Fulton is worth it. She said she hates to see Fulton take the time to train firefighters only to watch them leave for other, better paying, jobs.

"They need to sit down and talk and renegotiate and come to terms on a contract," Luebbert said. "I think the city of Fulton is worth having the best."

Luebbert said she believes it is worth keeping veteran firefighters in Fulton, even if that means paying them a little more, because they know the city better than new employees and that knowledge can cut down on the response time during an emergency.

Luebbert also said the longer the firefighters stay in Fulton, the better they understand one another and know how each person will react in a specific situation.

Johnson said he too agrees that longevity in the work place is essential for success.

"We want to get some longevity because they'll get to be more familiar with both the town, our equipment and each other," Johnson said.

In the end, Luebbert said this whole issue isn't about pay it's about safety. She said it's about the safety of the firefighters and the safety of the town.

While Luebbert said the union is happy about the recent entry-level salary pay-raise given to the union at the August 25 meeting, she said they aren't completely pleased yet.

"I think they did it just to keep us quiet," Luebbert said.

She said the union and its supporters won't stop until they feel a fair wage can be agreed upon.

"It's still the same issue," Luebbert said." We have no contract for these guys and we need one."

As the battle for a pay raise continues on in Fulton, Mirth said he will support his firefighter family because that is what family does. He said he understands the mental and physical strain that firefighters go through and wishes the city would see that also.

"I wish maybe he (Johnson), would step back and take a walk in firefighters shoes and see what they go through everyday," Mirth said.

Mirth said he just wants the firefighters to be paid fairly because they risk their lives everyday to keep the town safe.

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