After weeks of silence, top Gainesville officials are now speaking out about concerns that inadequate pay is causing attrition and low morale in the city fire department.
In the last four years, 27 firefighters have left the department, about one-third of the force. Some have retired, some have departed for other careers and others have left to work at other fire departments in the region.
Of 93 certified Gainesville firefighters, including the chief and top management, the average length of service is 9.92 years. About 40 firefighters have been with the department fewer than five years.
Multiple sources in the fire department, who spoke to The Times over the last month on the condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal, said the pay issues pose a risk to public safety and have resulted in an understaffed force that lacks critical experience on the job.
City officials, however, downplay the impact attrition is having on the department and said they have tried to address pay for firefighters, as well as other city employees, by doling out two cost-of-living adjustments and a Christmas bonus in recent years.
“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t want any attrition,” Councilman Sam Couvillon said. “But I’m not concerned because, at the end of the day, the pay of the firemen is public knowledge.”
“Everybody knows going into their job how much they’re going to make,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “If employees didn’t like that to begin with, then maybe they ought to consider looking elsewhere.”
“Nobody ever makes enough,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “They knew what they were getting paid when they signed up to do the job.”
According to a job posting on the city’s website, starting pay for a firefighter/EMT is less than $29,000 a year, but will bump up to about $29,500 in 2015. In Hall County, the same position begins with a starting pay of $33,669.
Starting pay in similar-sized cities is $29,500 in Rome and $32,000 in LaGrange. Recruits in College Park, which has less than half the population of Gainesville, start out at more than $37,000.
Nearby, Gwinnett County starts firefighters out at more than $34,000 and Forsyth County at about $36,000.
In October, The Times learned that about 20 firefighters had been selected for interviews with Human Resources officials to discuss concerns about pay, leadership and morale within the department.
The idea for such interviews came after an inquiry in August revealed morale and leadership issues within the police department, leading to Chief Brian Kelly’s resignation Aug. 29.
While some of the interviews were held, the majority were canceled after The Times published a story reporting they were taking place, and quoting anonymous sources within the fire department who expressed dissatisfaction with pay and leadership.
City spokeswoman Catiel Felts said firefighters have been informed that they can contact Human Resources to discuss personnel matters, but that the city is not actively seeking out employees to interview.
The decision to cancel the meetings, however, compelled more firefighters to speak out to The Times.
Sources said the majority of firefighters work a second or third job to make ends meet. Those sources, with varying years of experience, said many firefighters take home less than $1,700 a month after taxes and retirement contributions.
Some Gainesville firefighters reportedly are on food stamps.
But city officials said the fact firefighters work multiple jobs is simply the norm in the industry.
“It was the same thing then as it is today,” Dunagan said. “But I do know when they’re working (in the fire department), their lives are on the line sometimes.”
Sources in the department counter that stringent training requirements make it difficult for firefighters to find and retain second jobs. City officials said they provide a vehicle firefighters can use to travel to training, and that meals and lodging are either paid for or reimbursed.
The sources, however, said they are not fully reimbursed for their time devoted to training, which can pull them off shifts and limit their availability to work second jobs.
Annual raises and longevity bonuses were once standard, according to sources, but that has not been the case in recent years. Moreover, sources said, the cost-of-living raises have been diluted, in part, by rising health insurance costs and retirement contributions.
City officials said addressing the pay issue has been difficult in recent years because of the economic recession and slow recovery.
Dunagan said he recognized the economy has also likely hurt some firefighters’ ability to earn a second income, making it difficult to support a family.
“Really and truly, I don’t think they make enough money,” he added. “I see where they’re coming from.”
City officials said they hope approved merit raises of up to 5 percent will improve morale among firefighters. However, “It is not a guaranteed, across-the-board pay raise of 5 percent for every employee,” Felts said.
Officials also said they intend to conduct a pay study to determine if workers’ wages and benefits across all city departments are competitive with similar-sized governments and private sector job equivalents.
Firefighters have told The Times they want city officials to prioritize pay for public safety workers.
“I think the pay for some firefighters is probably an issue,” Wangemann said. “But if you give an increase to firefighters, you also have to do the same for police officers, and actually for the rest of city employees to make it fair across the board.”
In addition, city officials said they cannot match what other fire departments across the region are paying.
“We are never going to be able to afford to compete with metro Atlanta departments,” Couvillon said.