Pay raises for pramedics under consideration here

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ambulance staffing and overtime pay are a concern for the Marshall County Emergency Medical Services Committee composed of county commissioners who want the best service available in a life or death emergency.

However, those committee members and other commissioners at the committee meeting on Monday evening are also concerned about county spending plans when a recession threatens county sales tax and property tax revenues.

Balancing both concerns led to a 3-2 vote against asking the commission's Budget Committee to find about $230,000 more for the EMS budget of $2.35 million so EMTs and paramedics could get pay raises.

Faced with the dilemma of a desire to treat county employees equally and EMS staffers who could quit and go to work for another ambulance service for better pay, committee discussion prompted Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel to ask, "Is there a rule that if we give the EMTs a raise, then we've got to give the shovel holders a raise?"

Discussion indicated some willingness to increase pay rates for ambulance service personnel when county highway Department employees might not get raises, but the majority of the committee voted to wait until they've seen the entire county budget.

Voting to wait were Commissioners Billy Spivey, Jimmy Wolaver and Tony White, while Wentzel voted with committee Chairwoman Reynelle Peacock Smith.

EMS Director James Whorley deferred to Freda Terry, the county accounts and budget director, to explain a set of figures one better pay scales for the ambulance crews and related personnel. Complicating the calculations are the shifts worked by employees who include full- and part-time workers.

Without spending cuts elsewhere, the changes might result in a property tax rate hike of more than four cents, according to Terry's explanation to the EMS Committee during its meeting at the ambulance station at Ellington Parkway and Spring Creek Road.

A chief reason for the computations was the realization that "We were under-funding over-time" n the budget adopted last summer for the current fiscal year ending June 30.

Discussion included the prospect of having more part-time employees, although there was a clear recognition that paramedics working part-time might not always be available because of their other employment.

Over-time pay was mentioned by the previous EMS director when explaining why he resigned. Jimmy Adams said some shift workers receiving over-time wages were being paid more than him since, as director, he was salaried. Since then, other reasons, including a state audit, have surfaced that could have motivated Adams to find other employment.

Still, quality staff for an ambulance service is what commissioners want, according to comments such as Spivey's: "When I call you, I don't want the cheapest EMT you can buy to come by my house."

Commissioner Mickey King, however, brought the discussion to issues of cold cash.

"You're going to have to raise the property tax, unless we can cut the budget elsewhere."

Wolaver agreed: "That's where I'm coming from," but he also acknowledged other counties' ambulance services may pay better wages.

Whorley agreed the decisions are difficult but, as the ambulance service director, he's obliged to raise the issue of increased funding while also looking for places to economize.

Nevertheless, Whorley said, "Jimmy (Wolaver) had a good point; We ought to just be grateful that we've got a job."

A wide variety of other factors were discussed, including fuel prices, staff experience, loyalties, and a desire to see the rest of the county's budget.