Columbia firefighters get retroactive pay raise

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 30, 2013 

— About 400 firefighters in Columbia and Richland County will have slightly fatter paychecks very soon.

City Council on Tuesday authorized a 3.3 percent pay raise for firefighters, retroactive to Jan. 1.

The money to cover the raise through June 30 – the end of this year’s budget – will come from the fire department’s accounts. The $183,000 will be taken from money that has gone unspent because of vacancies, fire chief Aubrey Jenkins has said.

“It’s going to be for all the boots on the street,” Jenkins said, referring to firefighters in the county under a joint operating agreement with the city.

The department has about 60 unfilled positions now, 25 of which are for captains, Jenkins said.

The new raise is on top of a 2 percent across-the-board raise all city employees got this year.

Council struggled with approving the increase for one public safety department instead of all departments that deal with security.

“I’m OK with doing this for fire (now), knowing that we’re going to do the same for police and 911,” said Councilman Sam Davis. “It’s just a matter of when.”

The budget and finance staff presented council with options to extend the 3.3 percent starting July 1 to police officers and the staff at the 911 telephone center, who also are in line for a second 2 percent raise council is likely to approve in next fiscal year for all city workers.

But extending a 3.3 percent, out-of-cycle raise to those agencies would have added nearly $800,000 to the budget that takes effect July 1, according to figures the staff provided council. Council asked city manager Teresa Wilson to look for ways to pay for giving police and 911 workers the same boost in pay next fiscal year.

Council also considered offering the increase to other public safety agencies beginning in January 2014 – halfway through the fiscal year. That would have cost an additional $583,500, according to the figures released at work session on the 2013-14 budget plan.

Council supported the 3.3 percent raise for firefighters after Jenkins argued that his department is losing many firefighters to better-paying agencies. He told council recently that some firefighters are resorting to food stamps, though Jenkins hasn’t said how many or for how long.

On the revenue side of next year’s city budget, council dropped a suggestion to impose a $750 fee when first responders are called to chemical or other spills. That had been projected to generated $500,000.

But council is considering charging a registration fee to any company, including retailers, who have hazardous chemicals on site. That would apply to common chemicals such as poisonous materials, flammable liquids and gases or other chemicals found at Lowe’s or Home Depot stores, for example.

Council members said they want more details before going ahead with the fee.

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