A proposal that would increase salaries for some personnel in the Columbus Department of Fire & EMS sparked a lengthy discussion Tuesday at a Columbus Council budget review meeting.
Under Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s recommended fiscal year 2018 budget, the department would define 36 fire medic/paramedics positions as requiring paramedic certification and raising that pay level from PS 14 to PS 15 at an annual budget cost of $57,331. The city also would increase fire medic/paramedic incentive pay from $5,000 per person per year to $6,000 at a cost of $31, 288.
On Tuesday, Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Meyer made a passionate plea for the changes, noting a shortage of paramedics and the department’s difficulty recruiting and retaining personnel.
“We’ve got the absolute best employees, in my opinion, that work for this department,” he said. “And they do it because they love what they do, and they do it because they love people. And it doesn’t matter what you look like, how tall you are, where you live in Columbus, Georgia, or where you live if you’re visiting here, they treat you the same, they treat you professionally. They care about you the customer.”
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Meyer said some of the councilors have commented on how well their own loved ones were treated when the department responded to a call, and he believes paramedics deserve to be well compensated for their service to the community.
But while council commended the department for its outstanding work, Councilor Glenn Davis said he wasn’t sure the proposed changes would solve the personnel shortage and he was afraid it might be throwing good money after bad.
Davis said councilors were supportive of the recommendation, but he wondered if other options had been explored.
“I think these guys are worth more than what’s being proposed, all of them,” he said. “... And if we had the ability to do it today, I’d be supporting that. But think what we’re talking about is retaining and dealing with a matter where we’re down in numbers of fire medics. We have a problem filling those positions, and so it begs the question: If we make this move and put the money in that direction, do we have the confidence and assurance that in two or three years that the problem would be solved?”
Meyer said the department was fully staffed in 2015 when certification incentives were provided, but the numbers have decreased in recent years due to lack of funding. The department currently has 36 paramedic positions and only 27 people to fill them. Officers with paramedic certifications are being re-assigned from their promoted positions to maintain staffing levels. He believes the incentives will make a difference if they are maintained.
“We’re confident that with the recommendations that have been made in this budget that we’re going to be able to start turning that around, especially with some of the things we’re hearing from some of the folks that have left us in the last couple years and are showing an interest in coming back,” he said. “I’m optimistic that with the total package we have that we’re able to increase the pay of not only our medics, but also the firefighter EMTs because they’re coming in the door.
“Unemployment is hardly anything now, less than 5 percent,” he added. “So folks have a whole lot of opportunities to go places and make more money. I think if we make it more attractive in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services, financially speaking, we’re going to be able to attract better applicants and have employees that are going to be successful in taking that next step and becoming medics.”
In addition to the paramedic incentives, Meyers also requested that council allow the department to increase ambulance transport fees, which is also included in the mayor’s $268 million budget. The fees for basic life support would jump from $500 to $700 and for advanced life support from $700 to $900, for a total projected revenue increase of $600,000.
The department also requested a mileage rate increase from $7.50 per mile to $10 per mile for ambulance transport, with a projected revenue increase of $60,000. That recommendation was excluded from the mayor’s recommended budget. Councilor Judy Thomas added it to council’s add/delete list for further consideration.
Councilor Pops Barnes thanked Meyer and his staff for their service to the community as one who is both a health professional and a recipient of their services. “When they came into my home, they hit all the buttons; (did) all the things professionally as they should have done,” he said. “That comes with a lot of training.”
He said individuals that do that kind of work have a natural love for people, but they also need to be well compensated so they can support their families.
“And it is a sore point for me every time I look at the budget session that we can’t recognize our public safety individuals who do all that they do not compensated the way they should be compensated,” he said. “... And I’m hoping that somewhere along the line that we can show all of our employees how much we appreciate it.”
Thomas, who also commended the department for its outstanding work, said council is addressing the financial issue because it’s a budget season, but they are very much aware of other changes that should be considered such as providing more ambulances. She said two and a half ambulances have been added in recent months and should make a difference.
“I know that there are some morale issues with these folks because they don’t always see how much they are appreciated, Councilor Barnes,” she said. “But we need to make sure that whatever we can do, financially or whatever we can do to give these personnel the equipment that they need, the time that they need, the help that they need, the support that they need.
“And it’s not because we don’t want to do it; sometimes it’s because we’re trying to figure out how we can do it,” she said. “And I know that this is an ongoing conversation. And if it’s not an ongoing conversation, make it one.”