Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Mel Stewart said Wednesday that it's hard for firefighters to make a living in Steamboat Springs under their current salaries. A proposal put before the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday could change that.
“A majority of our firefighters are either working two jobs or depending on their overtime to make ends meet, and some people are doing both,” Stewart said. “Some of them are working an extra 500 hours a year just to support themselves.”
City officials on Tuesday night presented City Council with a preliminary 2013 budget that Stewart thinks will bolster his department and prevent turnover by granting the city's 22 full-time firefighters and training captain $192,717 in raises next year.
Stewart said the current salary offered to firefighters prevents some of them from choosing to buy a home or raise a family in Steamboat.
“What we're starting to see is we're becoming a farm for firefighters,” Stewart told the council. “We take them in. We train them well, but then they see they can go to another community and earn more money. ... They have to make a decision that's going to carry them forward in their minds.”
Many City Council members were receptive to the pay raise proposal when it was presented Tuesday. Council member Kenny Reisman said the turnover could end up costing the city as much as the pay raises in the long run.
“It comes back to us and we pay for it either way because of the cost of training and the cost of turnover and attrition,” he said.
But other council members were concerned by how expensive funding fire and ambulance services has become since the department transitioned from a volunteer service in 2001 to a city-funded professional force in 2002.
Council members Cari Hermacinski and Bart Kounovsky questioned what was being done to address the "exploding cost" of the fire department over the last decade.
Finance Director Kim Weber said that in 2001, the year before the city started funding a professional department, the city paid $811,000 for firefighting services. That cost did not include ambulance service.
Weber said Tuesday the city is projected to spend $3.2 million on the fire department next year and receive $1.1 million back in revenue from ambulance fees, grants, special events and cost sharing with the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District.
Stewart said the department tried to save some money this past spring by scaling back its minimum staffing from eight to seven firefighters for two months, but he said the move had some drawbacks.
“The bottom line is we can cut staffing back, it'll just mean longer response times to certain calls,” he said.
As an example, he said the department was trying out the reduced staffing level in April when a woman having a seizure at Walmart waited an extra 20 minutes for an ambulance because firefighters were slammed with other calls, including two agricultural burns that got out of control and turned into wildfires.
Human Resources Director Anne Small said if the pay raises for the firefighters are approved this year, 23 full-time employees would receive raises. She said firefighters would see their starting pay increase from $36,602 to $44,307, and paramedics would see their base pay increased from $44,714 to $51,291.
Six of the city's 22 firefighters are certified paramedics.
Stewart said that since 2010, the fire department has seen five of its employees resign to pursue higher-paying jobs in other communities, and two of those positions remain vacant. He estimated it costs the city $32,640 to hire and train a new firefighter, not including their salary.
He also estimated that with salaries, training and equipment costs, the city will end up paying $575,000 to replace those five positions.
A salary survey conducted by the city earlier this year deemed firefighters and paramedics the city's most underpaid employees compared to their counterparts working in cities similar to Steamboat.
“Our ultimate goal is to get them to a living wage that's competitive with other communities, and that they don't have to work that overtime to be able to make ends meet,” Stewart said. “We'd really rather see them work their shifts, go home and be off just like everybody else that works their job.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com