2017-03-02 / Front Page

Firefighter pay to increase 10% in one year

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Chief Jim Porter of the Suttons Bay Bingham Fire and Rescue Department hasn’t found anyone willing to fill a fulltime, fully-benefitted position for a dually-trained firefighter and paramedic since a retirement last summer created a vacancy.

Consequently, the Fire Board has voted to increase pay for firefighters by 10 percent across the board.

Last summer, nine people submitted applications for the position but only two of them showed up for an interview and only one of them passed a test. That person turned down an offer of employment.

“I did a little follow-up by touching base with some of the people who never even got back to us, and what I found out didn’t really surprise me,” Porter said. “Our pay scale is just way too low.”

Currently, a newly-hired, dually-trained paramedic and firefighter at Suttons Bay-Bingham begins at $13.97 per hour. Just to become a paramedic, an experienced emergency responder needs already to be certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a firefighter, then must take an additional 500 classroom hours of training, plus 250 clinical hours followed by a 250-hour internship – just to be qualified for testing as a paramedic.

“This fall, I did a pretty comprehensive study of what other similar departments are offering and learned that our pay scale has been way out of whack,” Porter said.

“We compared ourselves to six departments that provide 24/7 Advance Life Support ambulance service – which not every department does – in mostly rural areas of the state like ours,” Porter explained. “We were pretty much at the bottom pay-wise.”

But that will soon change. Last week, the board of the Suttons Bay- Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority ratified a new three-year contract with the Suttons Bay Professional Fire Fighters Union Local 4827 that will raise pay substantially for the department’s fulltime paramedics, EMTs and firefighters.

Pay rates will rise by 10-percent in the first year of the contract, by 4-percent the following year, and another 3-percent in 2019. Porter said the increases will bring Suttons Bay- Bingham to the median level being paid currently by the six other departments studied.

“By 2019, we’ll be paying our people the same rate of pay that Glen Lake Fire & Rescue is paying now,” Porter said.

By 2019, a Suttons Bay-Bingham paramedic and firefighter will be earning about $21 per hour after four years on the job. Based on a standard 52-hour work week at the department, annual salary at the top of the pay scale will come out to almost $63,000 in 2019. The annual pay estimate includes timeand a-half for overtime after 40 hours.

“We were asked to make some concessions as part of this new contract,” said Capt. Mark Bowen, who serves as spokesman for the seven other unionized department members. In all, nine positions in the department are unionized, but one position remains vacant.

Concessions made by union members include an increase in their share of payments for family health insurance from 6-percent to 10-percent of the cost. In addition, unionized members were contributing less than twopercent of their pay to a retirement program. Their contribution to their own retirement will now increase to six-percent of base pay.

“We have a very good relationship with the fire authority board and management,” Bowen said. “And now, we should be able to hire the people we need to serve our community.”

Fire authority board president Rich Bahle, who also serves as the Suttons Bay Township supervisor, said the days of fire and rescue departments being able to rely on volunteers and “partpaid” personnel are long gone.

“Taxpayers want 24/7 advanced life support, and are clearly willing to pay for it,” said Bahle. “At the same time, improvements in our fire and rescue department have lowered fire insurance premiums for many of our residents in ways that sometimes outstrip what they’re paying in property taxes.”

In August 2016, some 85 percent of voters in Suttons Bay and Bingham Townships agreed to renew a 2.3-mill property tax for the next four years to pay for their fire and rescue department.

Porter noted that a half-mill bond levy voters approved more than a decade ago to help pay for expansion of the fire and rescue hall on St. Mary’s Avenue at Front Street in the Village of Suttons Bay is set to be paid off next year. That means next year Suttons Bay and Bingham township taxpayers will be paying a half-mill less than they have been paying for nearly a decade.

At its rescheduled monthly meeting last week, the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority Board also adopted a budget for the new fiscal year beginning April 1 that includes the pay increases for fulltime firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

The current fiscal year budget relied on $1,139,073 in revenues and will likely end up with a very similar level of expenditures – and no need to dip into the authority’s estimated $232,000 reserve fund balance, Porter said.

The fiscal 2017-1018 budget is expected to be just over 2-percent bigger with estimated revenues of $1,163,701 supporting a tentative $1,270,444 spending plan, Porter said.

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