By Kierra Pixler, Managing Editor
Belton city leaders answered to concerns from the public in the wake of a series of events that have snowballed and created a staffing and budget problem for the Belton Fire Department. Seven firefighters have now resigned and taken jobs in the area that offer higher compensation. The Belton Professional Firefighters Association took to social media to express their concerns. Along with better wages, the group says the Belton Fire Department needs better benefits and more staffing.
Lieutenant/Paramedic David Holloway has been a firefighter for six years and president of the Local 4506 Firefighters Association for two. He stated that Association has not made any demands, only having tried to bring awareness to city officials and the public of what has been happening with not only the fire department, but throughout city departments.
“We first attempted to contact city council members on March 31 with a letter and received no response,” Holloway said. “We then tried two weeks prior to the Facebook post to meet with city officials with no response. In the letter, we suggested a yearly pay scale and benefits study of surrounding departments, which is not uncommon for municipalities. The other issue of department staffing numbers I reference NFPA 1710 (standard for the organization and deployment of fire suppression operations, emergency medical operations, and special operations to the public by career fire departments) which is not state law, but a recommendation on staffing for fire apparatus and what it takes to safely operate on a fire scene.”
Holloway and two other fire fighters recently met with City Manager Sam Listi and Fire Chief Bruce Pritchard to discuss the departments problems. Holloway said that the recent Heritage Park expansion played a major part in the meeting.
“Myself and two other members met with our Chief and Mr. Listi,” Holloway said. “We discussed everything that has taken place recently and the recent purchase of the land that will be an extension of heritage park. This land purchase played a major role in this, as it was a large amount of city taxpayers’ money and took place after a city-wide survey on retirement and knowledge of a retention problem through the entire city.”
City of Belton Public Information Officer Paul Romer stated that the bond used for Heritage Park cannot be used for operational costs, such as salaries.
“The Belton City Council authorized the use of bond funding to purchase land for the expansion of Heritage Park,” Romer said. “The purchase was once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we’re confident the expansion will ultimately have more positive consequences than negative.”
At the meeting, Listi addressed several of the problems, compensation being one of them. A desire was expressed for more competitive pay and enhanced retirement benefits. An increase from five percent to seven percent in Belton’s contribution to all city employees’ retirement funds would cost an additional $400,000 annually and is not included in the fiscal year 2019 budget just adopted by the council.
“The loss of revenue from County EMS services amounts to an estimated $500,000 annually in general fund revenue, which affects all general fund operations in a material way, including the fire department,” Listi said. “This impact began on Oct. 1, 2018, with the start of a new budget year. Planning for next year’s budget will get underway in Spring 2019, and will benefit from additional analysis in the meantime.”
Listi added that there may be other enhanced retirement options available for consideration in the future.
Romer said that the city has recently tested applicants to begin the process of replenishing the staffing shortage.
“It is anticipated that this will replenish a temporary staffing shortage within six weeks,” Romer said. “The safety of personnel and responsiveness to the public remain top priorities. Salary, benefits and personnel concerns are part of our annual budget process, which begins in the spring. At that time, these issues will be addressed on the management level, not on social media.”
Holloway said that more personnel have been requested in the past.
“We staff two ambulances, engine and a quint with eight firefighters,” Holloway explained. “Last year, both ambulances ran approximately 4,200 EMS calls. Many occasions leaving just four firemen inside the city limits. Now, with the situation we are in being seven positions short and what looks like more to come, only two options will be available. Staff working 48 hours on shift and 24 off or shutting down and piece of equipment. The department has always done the best we can do with what we have for the citizens.”
Listi stated that he and Chief Pritchard are monitoring work schedules to minimize the impact of extended overtime on operations.