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Our Views: Where theres smoke
Better pay is first solution to Gainesvilles morale issues in police, fire departments
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gainesvilletimes.com
. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

Debating the role of government is common election year fodder, with each side weighing in on how much influence federal, state and local leaders should have over our lives and tax dollars.

Yet conservatives and progressives can find consensus on the need to keep streets safe from criminals and put out fires. Public safety is a basic foundation of any civil society.

In recent weeks, however, we’ve reported on morale issues in Gainesville’s police and fire departments that undermine their effectiveness by creating high job turnover and dissent in the ranks.

The police department issues were varied, much revolving around Chief Brian Kelly’s management style and conflicts among leaders. When city officials began investigating, they concluded a change was needed, and Kelly was forced to resign.

Afterward, city officials decided to conduct similar inquiries into the workplace mood of other departments, starting with fire services, to see if similar problems existed.

The Times learned many firefighters were indeed unhappy, but as soon as we reported this, the meetings were abruptly canceled. It’s puzzling why officials first chose to investigate potential workplace problems, then scuttled such meetings when it became clear they had ample reason to conduct them.

We still don’t know all of the problems in the fire and police departments, but one common complaint emerges: The pay is too low. Even capable management can’t make workers feel fully appreciated when salaries don’t match what they feel they are worth.

These concerns over inadequate pay can manifest in many ways when it comes to retaining good police officers and firefighters, none of it beneficial to the city’s well-being or bottom line.

First is the huge investment made in training these professionals. It costs some $20,000 per year to prepare a Gainesville firefighter, in addition to first-year salary, which includes a minimum of 240 hours of both classroom time and real-time scenarios.

Gainesville invests these thousands into training and developing public safety officers, then watches many of them leave for higher pay in other cities and counties. It’s as if the city serves as the minor-league feeder team for Gwinnett and other metro municipalities who can pay more to attract the best trained, most experienced professionals.

The city can seek partial reimbursement for such costs from those who leave within two years after training. In one case, we learned Gainesville has filed legal action for such repayment. But doing so is costly and only recoups a portion of expenses, money that could be better spent on the front end in salaries.

This job churn has left city fire crews understaffed and less seasoned. Sources in the department say about a dozen firefighters have left in the past year over pay issues, and that the department plans to immediately fill only two of eight current vacancies due to of a lack of qualified candidates.

Those sources have told us many firefighters take second jobs to make ends meet. They often resume their 24-hour fire shifts weary from their moonlighting jobs, lessening their physical and mental sharpness. Do you want a sleep-deprived firefighter rescuing your family from a blaze?

These sources also claim some firefighters must rely on food stamps to feed their families. If that’s true, it’s a disgrace to so poorly support those who risk their lives for their neighbors.

Gainesville firefighters recently were promised a raise that never came based on the city’s top-level ISO insurance ratings. Those ratings help residents save money on premiums, and fire crews responsible should get credit for their efforts.

City officials say they plan to study how employee salaries compare to other areas. That’s fine, though long overdue, since it’s already clear pay is an issue. How many more veteran firefighters or cops will the city lose while it studies the matter?

Here’s a snapshot of what they may find: Starting pay for Gainesville firefighters and emergency medical technicians is around $29,000 a year ($33,669 for Hall County). Compare that to similar-sized agencies in Rome ($29,500, but $48,000 on the top end); LaGrange ($32,000); Forsyth County ($36,000); and College Park ($37,000).

Gwinnett County firefighters start at $34,000, rising to $40,000 after initial training and certifications. The cost of living may be higher in urban areas, but it’s hard to resist seeking the bigger paycheck.

The survey of police officers Gainesville conducted found half believe their pay is too low. Starting pay for the city’s officers is $32,388, comparable or higher than those in the Hall Sheriff’s Office and other nearby municipalities. Yet top-end pay for the department is $49,000, less than that of Gwinnett cities. The state’s average salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers is about $38,320, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with officers making $41,650 on average in metro Atlanta.

At some point, Gainesville must decide: Do we want first-rate public safety services or do we continue to play it cheap and watch money invested on training here go to benefit taxpayers elsewhere?

No one likes paying higher taxes, which may not be necessary if budgets are prioritized to address the most pressing needs first. Either way, Gainesville is no longer a sleepy rural town that can get by with Mayberry-style police and fire services. As the area grows and tax revenues rise in turn, more needs to be invested into basic needs such as public safety, schools, transportation and infrastructure. Failing to fund them properly is penny-wise but pound-foolish, leading to back-end costs greater than the initial payout.

We can argue over parks, libraries and other amenities that add value to communities, but fully funding efforts to enforce laws and fight fires should not be on the table.

The choice is clear: Gainesville must find a way to pay its police officers and firefighters more competitive salaries or continue to suffer turnover, residual costs and the unsettling feeling the city is not as safe as it should be. And no one can put a dollar sign on that.

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