GREENFIELD — Greenfield’s fire and police chiefs are seeking raises for their employees that would be twice what other employees might get in 2015.
It could be money well spent, Fire Chief James Roberts says, because the Greenfield Fire Territory is among the lowest-paying departments in the Indianapolis area and Greenfield is losing employees to other agencies.
But as the city council crunches budget numbers this week, members will have to decide whether there’s enough money on hand to give the raises and whether it’s appropriate to give more money to public safety agencies.
Most city department heads have penciled in a 3 percent raise for the council’s consideration. A $3,000 raise for each public safety employee is two times what most would get.
Advocates say the bump in pay is an attempt to put the city’s public safety agencies in line with what nearby departments pay, but others are leery and aren’t sure whether there’s enough money available to do so.
The driving force behind the request is a study Roberts did on nearby fire departments.
Of 26 Indianapolis-area fire departments that responded, Greenfield is second-to-lowest on its pension-based pay at $44,026 annually. Martinsville Fire Department pays $271 less than that, but Roberts said Martinsville also adds longevity pay.
The average pay among the 26 departments is about $53,600.
“Unfortunately, we’re still going to be in the bottom two even if we get the $3,000 raise,” Roberts said. “But at least it’s a step in the right direction.”
Roberts says the department is losing quality firefighters to other agencies because of money. Plus, as the number of emergency runs increases in Greenfield, more staff is needed; Roberts is also asking for three new paramedic firefighters.
The pension base pay is what a first-class firefighter makes after two years on the job. Every firefighter and police officer of first class or higher rank would get the same raise under the proposal. The police department is making the same request because it has the same pay scale and traditionally gets the same pay raises.
“We want to be competitive,” said Mayor Chuck Fewell. “We can’t overprice ourselves in the city, but we don’t want to be the least paid.”
Fewell said he met with both chiefs on the matter and is supportive of the raise to keep “good, quality people” on the departments.
But historically when the city council agrees to a raise, the same amount is given to all city employees. It’s been two years since city employees received a raise, and Clerk-Treasurer Larry Breese said this is a unique request from the city’s public safety agencies.
“It doesn’t take long when you multiply it by the amount of people you have that you’re talking real money,” he added.
A $3,000 raise for a first-class firefighter is $1,679 more than what he or she would get under a 3 percent raise. Multiply the difference by the 46 firefighters and 40 police officers on staff, and the city council is weighing a $146,458 request for both agencies combined.
For council member Judy Swift, it’s a decision that will be hard to make, because nearly every city department is asking for more money.
“You don’t want to raise taxes; you want to be cautious,” Swift said. “The reality of it is, everyone needs more money…. You need to make those tough decisions: What can you fund? What can you not fund?”
The council will meet tonight and Thursday to discuss the 2015 budget in public hearings; salaries will be debated on Thursday.
Roberts, who has been meeting with council members one-on-one to pitch his idea for a raise, says it’s hard to gauge what might happen. The council must weigh each department’s requests, but he’s giving them plenty of data that points to what he says is an underpaid work force.
Emergency runs have increased by 32 percent in the past 10 years. In 2013, the Greenfield department responded to 3,367 emergencies. Other departments responding to the same amount of runs make more money, or they have more people on staff to ease the workload.
The Brownsburg Fire Territory, for example, responds to roughly the same number of emergencies as Greenfield, but it has 29 more staff members and pays about $11,000 more in salary, according to Roberts’ study. Zionsville has a similar size department as Greenfield’s, yet has fewer runs and pays its employees $10,000 more.
Greenfield has lost public safety employees to the Zionsville, Westfield, Carmel, Noblesville, Fishers and Beech Grove departments. Six have left in the past six years, Roberts said, and money is often the reason.
But some council members aren’t buying that. Swift said people leave for new jobs for many reasons, and even if higher pay is offered, that might not keep firefighters here.
Councilman Gary McDaniel agrees, though he also said he is concerned if the city is putting money into training for staff members and then losing them to other departments.
Councilman Kerry Grass says it’ll all come down to dollars and cents at the end of the budget hearings. Cuts will have to be made: according to the clerk-treasurer’s office, there is nearly $5.2 million in requests for most city departments, which is roughly $400,000 more than the city expects to have at its disposal. Grass said the council will decide on raises on the final day of the budget hearings so they can have a big-picture perspective on where the city stands on money.
One of the main sticking points over raises for public safety agencies could be a funding dilemma specifically for the fire territory. The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance ruled in 2011 that Center Township residents were paying too much in taxes for the city’s services. The tax rate was cut; the city appealed the decision but is still awaiting an answer from the Indiana Tax Court.
Councilman John Patton said he feels as though his hands are tied on approving more spending for the fire territory until he knows what kind of a revenue stream to expect.
But Councilman Jason Horning said now is the time to approve a boost in pay. Horning, a deputy fire chief, says he won’t vote on the issue because of a conflict of interest, but it’s clear that other departments in the area are better staffed and better paid than Greenfield.
“We’re never going to be the highest; we probably won’t be the middle,” Horning said. “But if we’re going to attract qualified people, we can’t be last.”
While Police Chief John Jester is also asking for the $3,000 raise for his employees, he said he doesn’t have the same problem of losing police officers to other agencies because of money. Still, he said GPD could lose officers in the future if nothing’s changed.
“It’s speculation, but you put a lot of money, effort and time into officers where they’re getting trained, and they’re going to Fishers and get a higher-paying job,” Jester said.
Roberts said he understands the uncertainty of the council, especially when it comes to not knowing the outcome of the tax court appeal. But he said with the upward trend in emergencies in Greenfield and people leaving the department for better pay elsewhere, he’s doing his due diligence to ask.
“I’ve put things like this off, and I can’t put it off any longer, especially with our runs increasing like they are,” Roberts said. “We’re getting further and further behind.”
IF YOU GO
What: Public budget hearings for the 2015 Greenfield city budget
When: 6 p.m. today and Thursday
Where: Second floor conference room of city hall
Details: Listen in on the decision-making process on employee raises, citywide projects and more. While the city council will discuss the budget mostly during hearings, it’ll be formally approved later this fall.