City firefighters may get big raises

Susan K. Lamb, Democrat Managing Editor

A recent overnight move by county paramedics, EMTs and firefighters into city fire headquarters may bring parity raises for the city EMT firemen. That decision, which comes to $90,000 the first year, was made during a city fire committee meeting Tuesday night. However, because the city firemen have unionized, the issue must be taken to the union members and approved before the city can legally agree to the raises.

Under the proposal, Croft said each city firefighter will get a $4,500 raise and each EMT/firefighter will get a $6,000 raise. All city firefighters are expected to be certified as EMTs within six months.

Live Oak Fire Chief Chad Croft assured the council the union would approve the proposal.

Croft told the committee the city of Live Oak has the second lowest paid fire department in the state, which is one reason he's lost six firefighters within the past year and 20 in the past several years.

The issue came up as the city is preparing its 2003-2004 fiscal year budget which begins Oct. 1. Croft presented the request to increase salaries of EMT/firemen only to meet that of county fire fighters who are EMTs. The county fire fighters, paramedics and EMTs all moved into the city fire department recently after the city agreed to allow the county to put one ambulance at the fire station so city EMT firemen could ride with them, providing more and quicker service to the city for ambulance calls. In turn, the county was to allow its EMT firemen to assist city fire. Somewhere along the line the whole thing got out of control and the next day after the city approved the ambulance relocation, County Coordinator Johnny Wooley, without discussing the move with the board of county commissioners, moved the fire and ambulance service from the county's facility to the city fire department.

That led to a fracas that evolved with Wooley apologizing to the board at the next public meeting in late August for not bringing it before the county commission for approval before making a decision less than 12 hours after the city meeting to bring the county into the city fire department. However, the board did not require that Wooley move the county personnel back to the county facility as Wooley said all was working very well and almost all the employees were satisfied.

"I went on vacation and came back and the first thing I saw was a county fire truck parked in the city fire department!" said City Council President Don Boyette Tuesday night.

Croft said the raises are needed because the county upped their EMT/ firefighters' pay. "We're gonna have firefighters working side by side, same tenure, we shouldn't have one man making more working side by side," Croft said. Croft added that although in the beginning it was believed the city had four EMT/firefighters, it was discovered after the county moved in that only two of the city firefighters are EMTs.

Murel McDonald, Suwannee County EMS Director, later said he is working to set up off-duty training seminars with North Florida Community College to get all remaining county and city firefighters trained as EMTs, a task that will take approximately five months, he said.

Councilman Yulee said the city had not agreed to merge with the county. Yulee questioned Croft about what Croft is doing and who is actually in charge. "What are you doing? Are you talking about EMS, firefighters or the whole group?" Croft said he was referring to the entire group of city firefighters for raises.

Yulee said he thought the original decision was just a trial, but now it appears it has gotten out of hand without approval from the city. Yulee asked if the city hadn't taken in the county, would Croft have still asked for the $90,000 in parity raises. "Yes," Croft said immediately.

"All it does is establish parity for the EMT/firefighters, not the regular firefighters," chimed in Councilman George Blake.

"It's working, isn't it?" Blake asked Croft. "Yes, sir! It's the best thing!" Croft replied with enthusiasm. Croft said the bottom line is the city answers between 300 - 400 calls a year, but now they have an extra truck and extra firefighters. And, he added, it may cut down on overtime now that the county people are there. "Where we used to have four, we now have six," Croft said.

McDonald said with the current situation between the city and county, that call load will increase to about 1,000 calls a year as the city EMT/firefighters answer ambulance calls with the county.

Yulee said he doesn't object to the current situation, but rather to the way it was done. "I just don't want people to think we (the city council) are stupid!" he said.

Blake made it clear he doesn't want the county interfering with the city's business. "I just don't want the county coming in here and running the city fire department." Croft said that isn't happening. He added, under questioning, that there is a ranking system that everyone goes by. "When it's a county fire call, the county is in charge. When it's a city fire call, the city is in charge," he told the council. "Everybody is grown, and we know what we are doing!"

Mayor Sonny Nobles said the entire situation got out of hand. "This thing has kind of snowballed out of whack!" We were going to share,.....now our city firefighters came up here and said they're not going to work for that salary!" Nobles added the city needs to pay its firefighters, but, "the city may not be able to afford to continue to work with the county!" Nobles said the city doesn't have to start its own ambulance service and he doesn't know where that story started.

Yulee said he's not unhappy about the city and county working together to give better service, but believes there's a conspiracy. "Someone's gotten together and said we've got to bring up salaries! We're gradually merging with the county!"

"I've got no problem with that," Councilman Bennie Thomas suggested.

Blake said he agreed and the $90,000 is "a way to save lives" and although he's tangled with Wooley over many issues, he believes Wooley has come up with a good idea this time. "We can afford this," Blake told the council.

Boyette said in listening to the tape where the city agreed to allow the ambulance to be placed at city fire, "you'll find your motion was if it would not cost the city a thing!" Boyette said he sees it as the county threatening the city that if they don't work with them, the city will not have ambulance service.

Yulee suggested that if the EMT/firefighters get such a raise, those city employees who make the least amount should also be compensated better.

Wooley told the council the idea is working well and providing more and quicker service to the city and county.

Susan K. Lamb may be reached by calling 386/362-1734 ext. 131 or by e-mail at susan.lamb@gaflnews.com.


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