Fairmont’s mayor is asking the city council to “do everything” it can to address salaries for first responders next year.
December 24, 2018
Times West Virginian, Fairmont
Fairmont, WV, Fire Department
FAIRMONT —Following remarks at the Fairmont City Council meeting recently about the need to keep firefighters’ pay competitive, Mayor Tom Mainella called for council to “do everything” it can to address the issue.
He called for next year’s council to set it as a priority.
Mainella said he thought council needed “to make a commitment to these first responders to do everything we can to get this pay arranged so it’s not a revolving door.”
“As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got my commitment,” Mainella said. “I can’t speak for everybody else, but let’s get the ball rolling after the first of the year to see what we can do because it’s very important. We very much appreciate what firefighters and policemen do. We thank you all very much.”
Mainella made the remarks following comments made at the meeting.
David Whiteman, captain of the Fairmont Fire Department and president of International Association of Firefighters Local 318, was the first to speak. The firefighters all stood at the back of the council chambers as he addressed council.
“The reason that I’m here tonight is to attempt to resolve a problem that’s taken several years to evolve,” Whiteman said. “That’s the salaries of the employees of the Fairmont Fire Department.”
He noted that he has been an employee of the fire department for more than 29 years, and has been president of Local 318 for most of that time. Whiteman said he is also vice president of Professional Firefighters of West Virginia.
“So, I do have some insight of the other cities throughout the state,” Whiteman said. “Early in my career, we at the Fairmont Fire Department were paid equal to or better than all cites in this state. This is no longer true. Our salaries have been neglected to the point that we are now so far in arear that the department is having trouble paying and retaining good, solid, capable recruits.”
“A good example that I can give, the youngest firefighter on my shift has seven years seniority,” he said. “He is the only one of the last six that have stayed. It’s been a revolving door.”
Whiteman added that he recently lost the latest recruit from his shift to the City of Bridgeport because of “much higher” pay.
“We are behind our sister cities of Morgantown, Clarksburg, Bridgeport by as much as $5,000 or more in salaries,” he said.
He passed out a spreadsheet to council to back up his numbers. Whiteman said the issue goes throughout all the ranks, and needs to change.
“I believe that we’ve been tolerant through what we’ve been led to believe were leaner financial years,” said Whiteman, adding it’s time to take care of employees.
Citing today’s financial picture, he said street paving funding is in place, there is a 1 percent sales tax through the Home Rule program and there is a contingency fund that he said “is well above the national average.”
He asked that council address the issue during budget time.
Fire Chief Ed Simmons also addressed the council and said that for 122 years, men like him and the firefighters who were standing behind him have protected the citizens of Fairmont for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“This year alone, we responded to over 3,000 calls for service,” he said.
Of those 3,000, he said, 46 were structure fires, 16 of which were burning fires that resulted in approximately $920,000 in damage.
“But we actually saved almost $3 million worth of damage in those same 16 fires,” he said.
Fourteen more fires were calls such as trash can fires or oven fires that could have turned into major fires, had the firefighters not responded as they did, he said.
Simmons said the fire department also responded to more than 1,600 life-threatening EMS calls.
“We don’t ask for accolade, we don’t ask for praise,” he said. “But what we do need, we need resources. We need support.
He said he heard several council people express their appreciation for the firefighters, adding that he sincerely believed they meant it.
“But if you really want to appreciate these guys, give them the pay increases that they deserve,” he said.
Three years ago, he said, most of the people on council promised a pay increase.
“We’re on the third year of that,” he said. “I beg you, please go through with that. We need it. These guys deserve it. They’ve been patient. They need it.”
After the meeting, Simmons said the starting salary for a firefighter is $35,869 a year, but he said firefighters work 40 percent more hours (2,920 hours a year) than a typical employee working 40 hours a week.
Because of the amount of hours that they work and the way the city pays, he said, the firefighters end up making $10.53 an hour.
During the meeting, city manager Robin Gomez said in — at least — the last three years, there have been some salary adjustments across the city and raises, but he said they are still behind neighboring jurisdictions which makes it difficult to compete going forward. Gomez added there are also “other variables” impacting young people’s career decisions.
“But what we can control is to try to get closer to our neighboring and competing jurisdictions, and that’s what we’ve done,” Gomez said. “There’s still more to be done, clearly. As the chief said, we’re in year three of a plan or a proposal to try to get closer to those cities, and we’re getting there.”