In Wake of Exodus, County Ups Public Safety Salaries

WINNSBORO (Nov. 17, 2016) – On Monday evening, Fairfield County Council learned more about the County’s increasing inability to attract and retain employees in its safety sensitivity departments – the Sheriff’s Office, County Detention Center and 911 Services.

This comes on the heels of the Administrative and Finance Committee being advised last month of a critical shortage of paramedics in the County and the need to take immediate steps to stem the flow of paramedics leaving the County for better pay in surrounding counties or risk its Emergency Medical System (EMS) losing its Advanced Life Saving (ALS) license.

The meeting was filled with anecdotal evidence from the safety sensitive departments of certified employees with many years of experience recently leaving for much higher paying jobs in adjoining counties.

Deputy County Administrator Davis Anderson suggested it would take an annual infusion of a half million dollars to bring the County’s safety sensitive salaries up to speed with competing counties’ salaries.

“These positions are critical. If we can’t keep them staffed, people in the County may die. People may lose property,” County Administrator Jason Taylor told Council. “It’s important to be able to attract and keep good people in these positions. We’re having trouble doing that.”

The problems are multiple and mounting according to Anderson.

“Safety sensitive employees are not just hired by running an ad in the paper. These employees have to be certified by the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy (SCCJA),” Anderson said. “They have to go down to the Academy for a number of weeks, be trained, tested and certified. If they don’t pass certification, they don’t get hired.”

“If we send them to the Academy and they don’t pass and can’t work for us, then we’ve wasted that money (to send them),” Fairfield County Sheriff Will Montgomery told Council.

Further complicating Fairfield County’s ability to draw from the pool of eligible applicants is that candidates for these positions must have clean records. Plus there is a statewide shortage of paramedics, prompting employers throughout the state to offer better pay and more incentives, even signing bonuses for the more promising applicants. Not only is the pay better elsewhere, but the hours and shifts are shorter.

“Fairfield County paramedics work 720 more hours a year and earn 30 percent less than paramedics in Lexington, Richland, V.C. Summer and other places,” Director of Fairfield County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Mike Tanner explained last month.

Paramedic annual salaries in surrounding counties range from a low of $31,000 (Fairfield County) to $56,000 in surrounding counties. They can leave Fairfield County and go to V.C. Summer and make $20,000 more, Tanner said.

Salaries for Sheriff’s deputies in Fairfield County start at $30,625 compared with Lexington County at $39,474. While the Detention Center and 911 entry level salaries are in the $29,000 range, slightly above the average of salaries in surrounding counties, some of those counties pay almost $40,000, which is an enticement for qualified and certified employees from Fairfield County.

“Paramedics are the primary emergency health care providers in this county. They are the ones who save your life,” Tanner told Council. “But last month alone, we lost 30 percent of our paramedic staff.”

He said the problem has reached critical mass with 11 full time and 15 part time paramedic positions currently open in the County.

“(Our ambulances) were fully staffed only one day in September and four days in each of October and November. There were three days when half of our ambulances were shut down due to staffing problems,” Tanner said.

The Sheriff’s Office has three openings; the Detention Center has three openings and eight non-certified officers with only one year of experience; 911 Services has one opening and three employees not certified. The Association of Counties has determined that 911 Services needs to add seven more employees to the 13 current employees to be fully staffed.

Much of the blame for the County’s safety sensitive salaries lagging behind surrounding counties’ salaries was placed squarely at the feet of the County’s former Interim Administrator, Milton Pope.

“We didn’t just now think about this,” Anderson told Council. “We brought this up in the budget process last year, but the prior administration did not move it forward to Council. (These employees) have not been given cost of living increases in the last five years.”

To solve the problem, Anderson suggested increasing salaries in all four departments. He proposed raising entry level pay for paramedics from $31,000 to $34,000 and ranging up to $61,000. The total cost of this adjustment would be $187,778.40 annually. Sheriff’s Office entry level salaries would go from $30,625 to $34,000 with another $1,000 upon completion of SCCJA, an additional $3,000 for all current certified deputies and an additional 1.025 percent increase for current deputies with five years of service. Total annual adjustment would be $229,485.42.

The Detention Center entry level rate would go from $31,000 to $32,000 upon completion of SCCJA with a $300 per year experience factor for a total annual cost of $37,162.70. Entry level salaries for 911 Services would go from $29,184 to $30,184 upon completion of SCCJA and a $300 increase per year of experience. Emergency Medical Telecommunicators would receive $1,000 for certification to be qualified to give medical instructions over the phone. The total annual increase for 911 Services would come to $40,873. Total for all departments for a fiscal year would be $495,559.72.

Councilman Billy Smith (District 7) said he wished these presentations had been made to Council last year.

“These are the core functions we are charged with. To see that we have fallen this far behind is certainly not comforting,” Smith said.

“People wanted to cut taxes; so do we cut these programs? What would the citizens cut out in order not to assist the great things you (safety sensitive departments) do?” Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) asked, turning to Taylor. In addition, Marcharia said he wanted to see all the County’s employees considered for the raises.

“We did a salary study last year, analyzing every County department,” Anderson said. “When I advertise for an administrative assistant, I get 40 applications. When I advertise for a correction officer I get one applicant. What we’re talking about here is market value.”

When asked by Smith where the $495,559.72 would come from to shore up the salaries, Taylor said it would take less than 5 percent of the fund balance to cover the annual costs. But the cost for the remainder of the current fiscal year, he said, would only be $289,076.50.

Without further discussion, Council unanimously passed Smith’s motion to provide the funding.

Anderson said the new salaries would become effective the last pay period of this month.

Courthouse Bids

Taylor informed Council of three responses to the bids for renovation of the Courthouse: Alliance Engineering, Mead & Hunt and Godwin, Mills & Caywood. He suggested that, while staff usually reviews the bids, Council might want to invite each of the bidders to present their plans at a Council meeting, considering the enormity of the project.

Asked by Smith how the County would pay the bill for the project, Taylor said it would come out of the ($24 million) bond money.

“I think there is a sufficient amount to move forward with the planning process,” Taylor said. “You’re looking at a two-year planning process (design, planning and permitting). Within that time I think we might have enough additional revenue come in to fund the project,” he said, explaining that construction will be bid separately.

Infrastructure Grant

Taylor said the County had received a $500,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Commerce for infrastructure in phase II of the Commerce Center on Peach Road.

Sunday Alcohol Sales

Taylor also gave an update on the County’s referendum on Sunday Alcohol Sales, which passed on Nov. 8. He said the law should go into effect fairly quickly.

“After the election results are certified and the S.C. Department of Revenue receives that information, it will put us on the list,” Taylor said.

Agreement Amendment

Council passed unanimously second reading to authorize an amendment to the master agreement governing the I-77 Corridor Regional Industrial Park to expand the boundaries of The Park for the addition of a project code-named Project Alimex.