Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C.
May 26—Spartanburg city firefighters are seeking their first pay increase in 15 years, but city administrators have proposed a gradual salary increase that compensates for rank and experience.
William Pesature, vice president of the Professional Firefighters Association of South Carolina, asked city council to fully fund Fire Chief Marion Blackwell’s proposed $628,000 pay package for some 74 paid firefighters. Pesature, who was flanked by about 40 firefighters in support, made the request during the council meeting Monday.
“The proposed increase by the fire chief is in line with what the Spartanburg City Professional Firefighters Association believes it will take to be competitive in pay to other localities and retain experienced personnel,” he said.
Pesature also said, although firefighters have received cost of living increases over the years, they haven’t had a pay scale adjustment in more than 15 years.
But the city is offering a smaller pay increase. City Manager Chris Story said the city is offering $430,000 in pay increases to firefighters, a more-than 12% increase from the current year, but a difference of nearly $200,000 from what Blackwell has asked.
“It won’t be what the chief and assistant chiefs want, but it will be a significant movement in the baseline and a significant movement particularly based on those that have a lot of time in their positions,” Story said at the May 20 budget workshop.
Story said the city’s amount is roughly $5,800 more in pay per firefighter — some would make more, others less, depending on their position.
Blackwell’s request amounts to about $8,400 per firefighter, Story said.
Story added that he is trying to move the fire department’s pay scale to a step plan, which he said would more accurately compensate firefighters based on their experience and rank.
The starting salary for city firefighters is $33,350. The average pay range, according to Salary.com, is $33,607 to $56,011, and the median salary is $44,808.
By comparison, the average range in South Carolina is $33,657 to $56,095, with a median salary of $44,875. In Greenville, the median salary is $45,542; in Aiken it’s $44,732; in Charleston, $45,529; and Columbia, $44,427.
The amount sought by firefighters is nearly the same as what the council approved for police officers at the end of last year. In December, City Council approved $625,000 for police officer raises — increasing the starting salary from $36,300 to $40,500.
“Council cut (Blackwell’s request) down to 60% knowing that firemen haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years; police have gotten four,” Pesature said. “If you only give them 60%, you’re not taking care of the problem. You’re putting a small Band-aid on a big wound. You have to bring them back up or the retention rate is going to keep dropping.”
The South Carolina chapter of the Firefighters Association represents firefighters across the state, including Spartanburg Local 369.
Because the firefighters are public servant jobs, the union does not bargain for contracts, Pesature said. Rather, the firefighters are paid whatever city council decides to pay them each year.
The 2020-21 budget for the fire department is $6.3 million. Of that, $606,441 is for administrative pay and $4.3 million for non-administrative pay.
Story said the amount of pay for firefighters has not been finalized yet. Still ahead are a public hearing and two readings of the budget, he said. The new budget will take effect July 1.
With five fire stations, the city fire department provides fire response, rescue and prevention services to the city’s 37,000 residents and thousands of businesses and their employees. The department also supports other departments outside the city.
Blackwell said many firefighters are leaving the city for better-paying jobs elsewhere.
“Our leadership is great. Our culture is phenomenal,” Blackwell said. “They’re leaving for compensation.”
Recently, a driver with five years’ experience left for a better-paying job at the smaller Lake Cunningham Fire Department north of Greenville, he said. Also, a captain with 15 years’ experience recently expressed interest in moving to the Greenville Fire Department, he said.
Blackwell said last year the city department saw a 26% turnover rate.
Pesature said every time an employee leaves, the experience gap widens and the city incurs costs to train new employees.
“Without fully funding the fire chief’s proposed plan, firefighters will continue to leave for better compensation,” he said.
Contact Bob Montgomery at email@example.com
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