Fairfield’s majority 4 take heat over vote on rescue funds for first responders

WINNSBORO – “Thank you for slapping us in the face.”

That’s what one first responder uttered after the majority four Fairfield County Council members voted to spend more taxpayer money on themselves and recreation in their districts than on first responders who face COVID-19 every day.

On Monday, with the council chambers packed with about 40 of the county’s first responders, the council majority approved second reading of a plan to spend $1,573,000 in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) money without including input from the council minority as to how the money should be distributed.

The vote passed 4-3, with Council Chairman Moses Bell and council members Shirley Greene, Tim Roseborough and Mikel Trapp voting to approve. Council members Doug Pauley, Clarence Gilbert and Neil Robinson opposed.

Third and final reading could come as early as Nov. 8.

What’s included

The $1.57 million figure includes $460,000 for employee bonuses, but also hundreds of thousands of dollars for pet projects in the districts of two of the four council members who voted for the measure.

Earmarks include $350,000 for a mini park in Trapp’s district and another $150,000 for park upgrades in Bell’s district, according to council documents.

Pauley chastised the voting majority for prioritizing pork over public safety.

“I guess $500,000 for recreation is more important than those who are busting their tails for this county every single day,” Pauley said. “These men and women deserve more.”

Bell pushed back by shifting the blame onto the prior administration, who he said blocked past efforts to boost first responder pay.

“Last year, [former Councilwoman] Bertha Goins suggested that we give the essential workers to include EMS, the sheriff’s department, a bonus pay,” Bell said. “Members from Saving Fairfield got involved and it didn’t even get to the agenda.”

The draft ordinance states that Fairfield County anticipates receiving $2.7 million through ARP, but lists only $1.57 million in expenditures. Those expenditures include:

  • Employee bonuses | $460,000
  • Repair DHHS building roof | $500,000
  • Mini Park on Overlook Road, Blair | $350,000
  • Willie Lee Robinson Park upgrades | $150,000
  • Add project manager position to Economic Development Department | $75,000
  • Repair fire truck engine | $30,000
  • Communities in Schools Program | $8,000

Council also gets bonuses

Frustrated emergency workers packed the council chambers Monday night. Many pointed out the inequity of giving equal bonuses to other county employees who were allowed to work from home during the pandemic.

“We had en employee living out of their car for months because they did not want to go home and expose their family to the virus,” said Capt. Jennifer Fitch with Fairfield County EMS. “But you know what? They kept coming back to work every day.”

Fairfield County Coroner Chris Hill said first responders don’t have the luxury of choosing which calls to answer. He said the police, fire and EMS that encounter COVID-19 virtually every day deserve bigger bonuses. 

“We didn’t have the opportunity to sit at home for the whole year,” Hill said. “We get a death call, we have to respond. If the fire department gets a call, they have to respond. The sheriff’s office is dealing with domestic [violence cases) where nobody is going to admit they’ve got Covid.”

Meantime, the ordinance gives full time employee status to individual county council members, making them eligible to receive the same bonuses as full time sheriff’s deputies, Firefighters, EMS and other first responders, it was revealed during the meeting by Interim County Administrator Brad Caulder.

As written, the draft ordinance entitles full-time employees to $1,200. Part-time workers would receive $600, while temporary employees – including 156 volunteer firefighters and 18 volunteer EMS workers – only get $200, the ordinance states.

Individual bonuses are also subject to a 22% flat tax, meaning actual take home pay would be less, according to the IRS.

Pauley condemned giving bonuses to council members.

“So council members come up here twice a month for maybe an hour at a time,” Pauley said. “We had an emergency order in place where citizens weren’t allowed in the building, but council members are going to receive $1,200?”

“They’re included, yes,” Caulder said.

In an email to a Fairfield County municipal employee, a SC Municipal Association official issued his interpretation of the Treasury Department guidelines for disbursement of ARP funds to council members:

“Elected officials either are not eligible given the definition of “essential work” in the guidance which has been issued by the Treasury Department or, at the very least, that premium pay to elected officials would be exceedingly difficult to justify given that definition,” he wrote.

“Any increase in compensation, which the ARP premium pay would be considered, may not take effect until after the swearing-in of council members following the city’s next general election. Basically a council may only grant such an increase to a future council.”

The issue of increasing compensation is specifically applied to county councils in SC Code of Laws, 4-9-100, which states, Council may by ordinance adjust their salary but the ordinance changing the salary is not effective until the date of commencement of terms of at least two members of council elected at the next general election following the enactment of the ordinance affecting the salary changes at which time it will become effective for all members.

Further illustrating the inequities of the majority council’s proposed ordinance, Pauley noted 124 election poll workers as temporary employees are eligible for $200 bonuses for working only one Election Day during the pandemic.

“How many elections did we have during [the pandemic]?” Pauley asked?

After a pause, Caulder answered, “I believe just one.”

“So they came out one day?” Pauley replied.

“One day,” Caulder affirmed.

“So we’re going to pay them hazard pay?” Pauley asked, rhetorically.

Fireworks let loose

At that point, Pauley introduced an amended motion to award higher bonuses to frontline workers. That motion failed 4-3, with Bell, Trapp, Greene and Roseborough opposing.

Councilman Gilbert accused the majority 4 council members of routinely keeping the minority three council members in the dark.

“This is what you get when you don’t include the full board. It’s really a slap in the face,” Gilbert said. “When we find out about a lot of these things, it’s right here in this meeting.”

Again, Bell directed the blame onto others. He said council members previously bowed to public pressure from Saving Fairfield, a local citizen advocacy group, and failed to offer bonuses to first responders from federal CARES Act money.

“What some of the people up here are doing is showboating,” Bell said. “Do any of you ever remember [bonuses] coming on the agenda? You don’t, do you? There are people who got involved and said not to give you all anything. Nothing.”

Pauley countered that bonuses were previously shot down because Bell didn’t want to prioritize public safety employees then either.

“Let me straighten that up … At that time, Mr. Bell wanted to do the same thing that he’s doing now and give money to every single employee,” Pauley said. “He didn’t want to give it just to essential workers.”

Pauley’s remarks generated applause from the audience, prompting Bell to rebuke them for applauding, rehash his argument that council members previously stonewalled on bonuses.

“Hey, ya’ll can clap and we told you we don’t normally do that,” Bell said. “Pull the minutes and see when it [the vote] came through.”

“Ask Mr. Bell if he’s going to give up his $1,200 and distribute it among all ya’ll,” Pauley replied. “I’ll give mine up. Don’t give me any money. I don’t want it. Give it to the employees.”

Councilman Mikel Trapp also latched onto the CARES Act argument without addressing Pauley’s explanation as to why first responders weren’t included at that time.

“The biggest slap in the face … is the CARES Act money we could’ve given to the essential workers,” Trapp said. “Mr. Pauley and Mr. Gilbert wouldn’t even allow it to come to the agenda.”

Pauley pointed out that many county employees worked from home during the height of the pandemic while first responders confronted COVID-19 daily.

“Do you all care about two years ago? Or do you care about now?” Pauley said, addressing the majority 4. “There’s a motion on the floor. Let’s do a vote and see if we want to give [first responders] more money.”

Pauley’s motion failed 4-3, prompting first responders in attendance to depart in droves, some deriding and jeering the majority 4 council members while making their way out.

View the meeting, beginning with Chris Hills speech here.

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