BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council on Friday voted to increase wages by $61,000 for the Buckhannon Fire Department, despite some council members expressing frustration with having to revisit the issue.
During city council’s first meeting in October, Mayor Robbie Skinner and city officials approved updated wage increases that had been recommended by the city’s Revenue & Expense Review Committee. The announcement and approval of wage increases came after months of meetings between department supervisors, city utility boards and the Revenue Review Committee, and the process was intended to ensure city wages remained competitive with area private and public employers.
At the time, council approved a total of nearly $540,000 in raises, including $16,673.28 for full-time career firefighters. That number was notably lower than the overall total some other departments received; for instance, the Buckhannon Police Department received a salary increase totaling $160,828.18, and the Streets Department’s was about $83,600.
Council revisited the fire department’s increase during the Oct. 21 special meeting.
The fire department’s initial request submitted by Chief JB Kimble included a 50-cents-on-the-hour wage increase, but after further evaluating paid fire departments’ wages around the region, Kimble submitted a revised request for another $1 per hour on top of the original 50-cent increase.
“The reason we’re having this discussion today is that after further review, Chief [JB] Kimble thought, based on other departments and the going rate, if you will, for firefighters across our state, we were still below what would be considered to be competitive, and so we met once again, with the Revenue & Expense Review Committee and Chief Kimble came to present his findings and some examples and some comparisons and he advocated for an additional $1 on the hour increase for all of our paid staff firefighters,” Skinner said at Friday’s special session. “That would be in addition to the 50 cents-on-the-hour pay increase that we passed as a council during the first meeting in October, so this had to come back to council.”
Skinner said the Revenue & Expenses Review Committee had unanimously supported the request. Kimble, who was unable to be present for the meeting, sent Capt. Brian Elmore to field any questions from council.
Councilman CJ Rylands asked if the request stemmed from seeing the final amounts each department received.
“So, we had a Revenue Review Committee, we made recommendations to council, we passed [them], JB and the [firefighters] saw what went to the police department and now want to adjust what they requested based on what someone else got, basically?”
Elmore said yes, but the fire department is now primarily concerned with retention amid an ever-dwindling number of volunteer staff.
“We heard about that, yes, but we told [Kimble] we didn’t feel that was enough of a raise because we are having a horrible time with retention, keeping people and trying to bring people in,” Elmore said. “Our volunteer numbers are the lowest they’ve ever been since I’ve been there, and we’re relying heavily on our paid staff coming back on calls.”
Elmore said as of recently, seven of the department’s nine paid staff members come back on duty when they’re off to run calls due to a lack of volunteers. He noted the problem isn’t unique to Buckhannon.
“If you look across the state, for example, the City of Weirton now has $62,000 a year for starting pay because they’re trying to get firemen,” Elmore said.
Elmore said the career firefighters hadn’t been aware of how much of an increase Kimble had recommended, and city finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said that wasn’t unusual, as most department supervisors did not discuss wage increases with their staff. City firefighters are required to live within 10 air miles of the city to ensure an adequate response to emergencies, a mandate Elmore said sometimes hampered attracting applicants.
Councilman Jack Reger, a member of the Revenue Review Committee, weighed in
“We don’t want to lose people; we have quality people and we have several officers that are trainers and if we lose these people that can provide the trainings and stuff that we need, pretty soon, we’re expending funds to provide training for our own fire department,” Reger said.
“That’s what we’re worried about,” Elmore replied. “We have seven [staff members] who are certified through WVU to be instructors – that’s highly unusual.”
Reger said the city needs to revisit how the fire department can find additional revenue.
“I do believe we need to look at revenues for the fire department; I know it’s a dirty word here, but I think the fire fee needs to be examined,” he said.
Rylands also expressed his support, saying, “I’m all for it, Jack; just bring it back up.”
Councilman David McCauley and councilwoman Pam Bucklew suggested the department consider some form of incentive to reward volunteer firefighters in an effort to attract more.
However, city recorder Randy Sanders urged council members to return to the business at hand.
“I’m so proud of the training of the professional individuals that are in that fire department and the hard work they’ve put in each day,” he said. “I am a little upset about the breakdown here because this was taken care of the first time, and then there was a reaction to the announcements [of the increases] and it had to be, all of a sudden, reviewed the second time.”
“I would just say to all of our department heads that when you’re asked to do a task, we all have to do it thoroughly, we have to vet it thoroughly, we have to ask question after question after question, so when you come to the Revenue Review Committee, you’re 100 percent prepared … so we don’t have to backtrack,” Sanders added. “This shouldn’t happen again.”
Rylands said the after-the-fact increase could complicate matters further.
“This is precedent-setting, so [now] we can’t say we don’t review things after the fact anymore; you’re taking this and resetting it because they saw what someone else was getting,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re going to set a precedent, but the will of the council is to do this, I’ll acquiesce. It’s akin to Christmas presents. It’s like if [you] want this Huffy bicycle and go-cart but then your sister gets a Camaro because she’s 18 and now you want a Mustang … what happens in a family unit when you start doing that?”
Sanders made a motion to approve the additional $1 per hour increase, which begins Nov. 1, 2022, and Reger seconded the motion, which passed unanimously. Jenkins said the updated wage increase for the fire department amounted to $61,000 annually.