The Emporia Gazette
The Emporia Fire Department has released a letter it sent to the Emporia City Commission Tuesday stating that the commission’s recent discussions regarding city staff wages have missed the mark in addressing employees’ needs.
Signed by 46 EFD employees from the battalion chief level down, the letter acknowledges that at this point, most city employees are underpaid and directly addresses the 12% wage scale increase the commission has proposed, which would not result in any automatic raises save for those whose salaries fall out of the new wage scale.
The letter says that many city departments — including the fire department — are shorthanded as a result of an 18% turnover rate. The struggle to retain staff, in turn, leads to a struggle to recruit staff. The proposal to raise the wage scale by 12% was, in part, to facilitate recruitment as job postings will be able to list a starting rate.
However, EFD employees don’t believe that is a good enough solution as it would effectively disparage the contributions and qualifications of long-time staff.
The letter then calls for a 12% pay increase for all staff in order to match the 12% wage scale increase and suggests that the commission will need to be creative in determining how to fund the increase.
If the problem of underpaying employees persists, the community could begin to see an impact on the services rendered to it. The letter concludes by urging the commission to act before the effects of low wages are felt by the community at large.
The letter from the Emporia Fire Department to the Emporia City Commission can be read in its entirety below:
To the City Commission,
The undersigned members of the Emporia Fire Department have heard you speak about our low wages. You have recognized that all city employees are underpaid. This is a longstanding problem that has only been compounded, year after year. The last time the pay scale was significantly altered was in 2008. Jo Lynne reports that inflation has risen over 24 percent in the years since. During that same time period, only one 2% COLA raise has been granted, in 2014. It should be noted that no merit raises were granted that year. Most of the fire department earns a 3% merit raise. For us, 2014’s COLA raise was largely a net loss. With the solitary COLA raise, we are still well, well behind inflation.
We have heard your plan: to raise the pay scale by 12%. This will be a pay bump for a few. For the rest of the city, you offer a dollar per hour wage increase. At the mayor’s request, personnel expenses were flatlined for 2022 – 2026. We understand this to mean that merit raises, as it now stands, are not in the five-year budget. Were the merit raises to be left in the five-year budget, the budget would show the city’s reserves depleted. We further understand that the city commission felt that it would be irresponsible to approve a five-year budget that shows the city’s reserves so depleted. Some of us have been reassured that the intent is to keep merit raises. But, that will be a year-to-year discussion. Intent is well and good. But the disappearance of merit raises from the five-year budget seems to run counter to that intent.
We feel that it would be irresponsible for you to approve any such plan that does so poor a job of addressing the needs of the city’s employees.
The city commission has acknowledged that we have a retention problem. The fire department is short. The police department is short. From listening to city commission meetings, departments are short city-wide. Jo Lynne reported an 18% turnover rate. This fuels the city’s recruitment problem. The city needs more employees, yet cannot offer a competitive wage to entice them. Dealing with the retention problem helps to mitigate the recruitment problem.
Raising the pay scale by 12%, while refusing to raise all employees by the same amount, can do nothing but exacerbate the city’s retention problem. Besides damaging morale by compressing wages, such a decision devalues loyalty, experience, and training. Surely this is not the message the city commission wants to send to the employees that have stood by the city all this time.
In a study session on June 23rd of this year, Mayor Gilligan estimated it would take a roughly 10 mills increase to the mill levy to both raise the pay scale by 12%, as well as raise the wages of the city’s employees by 12%. Mayor Gilligan illustrated that the city makes money by taxing sales, imposing fees, and with property taxes. The city can spend less by cutting programming and investment dollars, or services that the city provides. Alternatively, there can be a shifting of programs or a shifting of budget dollars. He has acknowledged that the city, as an employer, is “just no longer competitive.”
On July 28th, the mayor discussed a hypothetical situation in which city employees would see an average wage increase of 4.5% over the next 5 years, before immediately dismissing it. Such raises would require, if an increase to the mill levy was the only method used to fund it, a 25 mills increase to the mill levy. The unfortunate truth is, even if these hypothetical raises became reality, the city’s employees would STILL be behind. In 2026 the city’s employees would be, more or less, where we should be now, in 2021. Another unfortunate truth is the economy is looking at record inflation increases this year and in 2022, at least. Again, city employees will be farther behind.
The city’s employees need the absolute best wage increase that the city can provide now. We deserve more than an ephemeral notion that merit raises will be evaluated on a year-to-year basis, but will be left out of the five-year budget. A real plan to address wages needs to come together expediently. On July 28th, the mayor stated that “maybe we’ve just avoided the real conversation for the last 5 years in our budget, because we haven’t had a real wage conversation.” Please, have that conversation now. Revenue clearly must be added to increase compensation for city employees, be it raising the mill levy, spending the sales tax on wages, and / or increasing fees. Perhaps a combination of all those will be necessary, perhaps even cutting services and investment dollars, along with other budgetary changes.
In recent years, a wage study was considered. It was opted against in a commission meeting, citing an inability to increase compensation to the degree that a wage study would suggest. If the commission refuses to find the depth of the problem via wage study, can the city not find a way to at least attempt to keep the pay scale on pace with inflation? Existing, loyal employees should not fall victim to yet another compression of their wages. Their wages should be brought up by the same percentage, so that they may keep the position they have already earned in the pay scale.
A 12% increase to the pay scale, in addition to a 12% increase to the wages of all city employees, seems reasonable. That would put city employees half way to keeping up with inflation. In commission meetings, most of the focus is on increasing the mill levy. Can 12% not be achieved by a combination of increasing the mill levy, utilizing the sales tax, increasing fees, while cutting some programming and investment dollars, as well as some of the more non-essential services, in addition to shifting programs and / or budget dollars?
How short do departments in the city need to get before a truly meaningful change to wages is enacted? Is it when trash remains on the curb, because of unstaffed trash trucks? All jokes aside, we doubt there will be any city commissioners staffing those trash trucks. Will it be when the city is short half the police department? Or when we don’t have enough firefighters to attempt a rescue at a structure fire? Will it be when we don’t have enough EMS personnel to respond to one of your family member’s emergencies?
The plan can’t be to just hope that this city’s employees don’t move on to the far more competitive wages offered by other municipalities and private business. The wage shortfall is a problem that is only getting worse, every year it is neglected by the commission. Please don’t kick this can any further down the road. Make the necessary changes to the five-year budget so that city employees may be compensated fairly.