After much debate, the commission voted 6-2 in favor of the plan. James said the increase was necessary to keep the department from losing firefighters to higher-paying agencies.
Commissioners Joe Jackson and Marion Williams voted against the increase, and Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle abstained. Commissioner Corey Johnson was not present for Tuesday’s vote.
“I think it’s good for firefighters,” James said after the vote. “… It will give us an entry-level rate to help us retain some employees.”
The increase boosts the entry-level salary from $26,844.48 to $30,000, to go into effect within 30 days.
Since the department operates under a special revenue account, fire protection expenditures don’t come out of the city’s general fund. They rely on revenue generated from insurance premium and fire taxes. James said the account has a balance of about $4 million. The proposal calls for about $500,000 through the next year and less than $200,000 to carry the department through the rest of 2014.
In less than six years, the department has lost 142 firefighters, including two in recent weeks who accepted jobs at higher-paying agencies throughout the state. Of that number, only 39 people left because of retirement.
At Tuesday’s meeting, James said staffing at Augusta fire stations has reached a “critical low,” adding that engine companies have been forced to shut down because of staffing issues.
Despite the issues highlighted by James, Williams, himself a former firefighter, said he couldn’t support the increase right now while the salaries of other employees remain stagnant.
According to James’ proposal, it costs about $23,000 to train new recruits to be certified firefighters and emergency medical technicians. A class of 25 new recruits could cost as much as $575,000.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy suggested the department draft a binding contract that requires new recruits to commit to the city for a number of years after their training to prevent early departures.
The department is exploring that option, James said, but such contracts have proved difficult to enforce.
After about 25 minutes of debate, Commissioners Donnie Smith and Mary Davis, along with Mayor Deke Copenhaver, voiced their support for the raises.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said while there are other departments that deserve raises, some positions hold a greater priority than others.
“All jobs are not created equal,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that one is less important than the other, but in terms of priority, equal and fair are two different things.”