City budget talks begin for 2024

Budget talks for 2024 have begun for the El Dorado City Council/Finance Committee.

The group started late last month with the El Dorado Fire Department and other city departments have lined up to present their budget proposals.

The finance committee will continue with the El Dorado Police Department at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the conference/training room of EPD headquarters.

Fire Chief Chad Mosby approached the finance committee on Sept. 27 with three options that included pay increases of 4%, 5% and 6% for EFD personnel.

The proposal was supported by a salary study that was described as "very, very broad" by City Council Member and finance committee chairman Vance Williamson.

"We started broad and in this pay study, we start to narrow down to departments of services and sizes to cities of similar populations and even regionally, the Southwest region," EFD Chief Chad Mosby said.

The police and fire departments last conducted salary surveys in 2015 -- work that resulted in each department restructuring its pay scale, said Mosby.

"We knew we were behind then. We took a median from the departments we compared to and the council has almost every year given us a raise," he said. "But there were some years we didn't get a raise.

The most recent salary survey included a component that focused on retention and the findings were telling, Mosby said.

"What we found in this pay study is that we are continually falling behind and that is making recruitment and retention very, very difficult," he told the finance committee.

Mosby said competition is stiff with local industries, who offer higher-paying positions.

The retention study also determined that firefighters are leaving the EFD for other fire departments that also offer higher pay.

For instance, a fire captain-paramedic recently left the EFD for an entry-level position with the Springdale Fire Department.

"He was making more as a new firefighter there than he was as a captain here," the fire chief said.

He acknowledged that the Northwest Arkansas region is in a different area of the state where the economy has grown steadily for the past several years "but those are the trends that we're seeing. We're losing people."

With its fire and ambulance services, the EFD's call volume in 2022 came close to the combined total of other departments in the Southwest region, as shown in the study.

Other Southwest Arkansas cities that were included in the study were Camden, Magnolia, Texarkana, Hope, Arkadelphia and Malvern.

Last year, the EFD took 4,466 calls, compared to a total of 4,815 for the other cities.

Texarkana had the next highest call volume at 1,651. El Dorado is the second largest city out of the seven cities that were cited in the study.

Mosby said the EFD also works to save the city money "every day" by taking on such tasks as fleet maintenance for smaller vehicles in the department.

"We're out doing inspections, testing hydrants -- all the things that go on behind the scenes. They have full days just about every day," Mosby explained, adding that EFD firefighters work a 56-hour work week.

Other city departments typically maintain a regular work week of 40 hours and the hourly rate for entry-level positions within the EFD -- $12.90 firefighter/non-emergency medical technician -- is among the lowest in the state, Mosby continued.

Out of 43 cities that were listed in the pay study for comparison, the EFD's starting pay ranks 36th, lagging behind Magnolia at $15.14 and Camden at $13.16.

The highest entry-level rate comes from Benton at $17.46 and the lowest from Helena-West Helena at $11.78

The EFD has 52 slots for uniformed personnel and one civilian position, an administrative assistant.

Mosby said that if the finance committee/city council does not approve one of the pay-increase options that was presented, firefighters' pay will rise by at least 1% throughout the year due to longevity raises and procurement of college degrees and professional licenses and certifications.

The EFD plugged in a total $40,000 increase in various categories of its proposed operating budget for 2024 because of inflation.

"As most of you know, everything is getting more expensive as we go," Mosby said.

Council Member Frank Hash asked how many EFD firefighters fall within the starting pay "zone" and Mosby said approximately 10 or 15.

Mosby later said that each firefighter within the entry-level pay rate has different incentives for pay increases and the $12.90 is the number the EFD must advertise for baseline pay.

"Now, if someone comes in with a bachelor's degree, they get 7.5% more than that," explained Mosby. "If they come in as a paramedic, they get more money because they have a license that we need and so those questions are not always black and white."

In response to another question by Hash, Mosby confirmed the EFD is seeking an across-the-board pay increase.

"It doesn't make sense to raise the lower pay and not raise it up through the rest of the ranks because then we couldn't do everything that we worked hard to do in 2015 ...," said Mosby.

"Before 2015, we had people ... that were moving up in rank and responsibility and they were getting very little pay and, in some cases, they were getting a 20-cent raise for protecting an entire city and being in charge of an entire fire department at night," he continued.

Recruitment and retention difficulties

The 2015 salary survey determined that several higher-ranking positions within the fire and police departments were underpaid, Williamson added.

Some positions did not provide a pay increase or offer pay incentives for firefighters or police officers to seek promotions, he said.

Earlier this year, the city council/finance committee approved across-the-board salary increases for the EPD to help the department with recruitment and retention.

The police and fire departments have said interest is waning in fire service and law enforcement careers and departments across the nation are experiencing difficulty in recruiting candidates.

In addition to competing with higher-paying jobs in other departments and the private sector, the trend has also been attributed to retirements and on the police side, strained community relationships.

The El Dorado Civil Service Commission will conduct a third round of civil-service exams for new-hires in both departments on Oct. 16.

Police Chief Kenny Hickman requested the third testing cycle, saying that civil service tests that were administered in the spring and summer did not yield enough candidates for the department fill its ranks.

Hickman said vacancies within the EPD routinely hover around six or seven, compared to four or five just four years ago.

Like the fire department, the EPD also has 52 positions for uniformed personnel.

Though the EFD department was able to fill vacancies with the results of civil service exams that were held last April, the department agreed to participate in the summer and fall testing series as a part of ongoing efforts by both departments to keep their ranks filled and eligibility lists stocked amid ongoing recruitment and staffing challenges.

Only one entry-level candidate for the EPD passed the civil service exam in April and following the second round of testing in July, the department was still left with four openings.

Hickman and EPD Capt. Jason Dumas approached the city's finance committee on May 18 with a request to increase pay for EPD officers.

On June 8, the city council approved a budget adjustment totaling $193,500 ($190,750 for salaries and wages and $2,750 for payroll taxes) for salary increases across the board for uniformed employees with the EPD.

Starting/base pay for entry-level positions increased from $18.08 an hour to $20.30.

No decision for several weeks

During the finance committee meeting on Sept. 27, Williamson emphasized that Mosby had presented options for pay increases but the committee will not make a decision on the proposal for the next several weeks as it pores through budget proposals from other city departments.

"If you don't do a pay raise from the bottom to the top, eventually ... (an EFD) driver/engineer will make the same as the starting pay and so you defeat your purpose and you work backwards and so it goes all the way to the top, across the board," Wiliamson said.

Mosby said a neighboring fire department increased starting pay but did not do the same for higher-ranking positions.

"They actually had people asking for demotions," he said. "They have since corrected that."

Council Member Buddy McAdams asked Mosby how pay for firefighters in the upper ranks of the EFD compares to corresponding positions in other departments and Mosby said simply, "We're pretty low."

The fire chief said some corollary information indicates that upper EFD positions -- such as captain -- pay less than some other departments in the state, but such positions pay higher locally than in Camden or Magnolia, for example.

"Part of that has to do with paramedic certifications and degrees and things like that," said Mosby

Council Member Willie McGhee pointed out that the money the city invests in entry-level firefighters goes beyond pay rates.

"If I remember, we were losing a lot of people but we were investing a lot of training in the people that we were losing. They were using that as a springboard to leave and go somewhere else," McGhee said.

"That's what I think we ought to be looking at here also, in with this. How much do we invest and how much do we lose when one employee either moves off for another job or goes somewhere else for a little more money?" he added.

McGhee said he believes the city spends more on brick-and-mortar projects than considering ways to maintain employees after investing money in training and other professional development for city employees.

"The chief here saves lives, just like the police department," McGhee said.

Mosby said the EFD spends between $20,000 and $25,000 in training and equipment to help a new-hires advance to thier first certification within the first year of employment with the EFD.

"So, you're absolutely correct. When they leave, unless they go to another department within their first two years, then we don't have any recourse to recoup that," Mosby told McGhee.

State laws allow fire and police departments to bill another department for certain training expenses -- EMT school, the (Arkansas Fire Training Academy), books -- if an employee takes a job with the new department within a specified date of hire within the original department.

Mosby said the EFD is not permitted to invoice equipment that is issued to an entry-level candidate who leaves the EFD within the prescribed timeframe.

The equipment remains with the EFD.

He also noted that the amount that is billed to other departments for training costs is pro-rated.

"So, if someone stays here for a year and a half, then I'm not recouping a lot of money," Mosby said.

"Sometimes I think it's a waste of effort to try to recoup $500 on somebody, plus you can hurt that person's opportunity to make a decision for what they think is best for themselves," he continued.

Council Member Judy Ward noted that the EFD dedicated a position to an in-house trainer in the 2023 city budget. The move was approved by the city council and opened up a position "at the bottom" at a cost of approximately $60,000, which included an additional $10,000 in pay for the existing EFD employee who was assigned to the in-house training position.

Mosby said the new position is another cost-cutting measure for the EFD because firefighters do not have to pay travel, overtime, lodging and other related costs to attend training sessions out of town.

He said the in-house training position will "pay for itself long-term", adding that four training classes have been taught at the EFD this year.

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