HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A proposed salary increase for the Hattiesburg Fire Department could help firefighter recruitment and retention, which could in turn improve the city's fire rating and lower taxes.
"I think it would be enormously effective in correcting the problem because they're leaving now because of pay," said Kenny Harrell, a retired firefighter and member of the Hattiesburg Council of Neighborhoods executive board. "Training our guys to go somewhere else is foolish and (a) worthless waste of our tax dollars. As a citizen and as a tax payer, I invest in quality service, public safety. When I lose the public safety that I'm paying for, it is very distressing to me, and I want to know why we don't do something to correct it."
Hattiesburg Chief Financial Officer Sharon Waits proposed 2017 budget increases Hattiesburg Fire Department pay in two areas. One, recent fire academy graduate salaries would be increased from $27,600 to $30,000.
"I think it's laudatory that the mayor and the city council are considering raising the pay of the recruits coming out of the academy," Harrell said. "However, that doesn't do a thing for the guys that have been there for years, dedicated to this community, and been there for this community for years and years. I just don't think it's acceptable."
Waits' proposed sworn firefighter salaries increase by $1,500, but Harrell said he does not think that is enough to keep current firefighters from looking for higher paying jobs in other departments.
"No," he said. "I don't. I really don't because we're in competition with everybody else that wants our guys."
Harrell said having adequate staff is essential to maintain Hattiesburg's current four fire rating and keep insurance costs for taxpayers from increasing. He said increasing salaries is one way to keep quality firefighters employed in Hattiesburg and save money for residents in the long run.
"In my opinion, our number four is at risk because of our our inability to retain quality service from our firefighters," he said. "We're supposed to have 120, and it's very seldom we ever get past 89, I guess. Right now, we're rated at four. If we go to a five, it's going to raise our insurance rates by about 10 percent. Now, you take the city, everything that's being insured, that's millions of dollars. If we maintain the four, even go to a three, you know, that could be as much as a 20 percent swing," he said. "That's a lot of money. What we would have for that lot of money is a quality department that we would be able to depend on."
He also said low fire ratings are essential for recruiting businesses
"Anytime you're going to move somewhere, you want to know what the cost of doing business in that community is," Harrell said. "One of the things you have to consider is how much you're going to have to pay for insurance. The fire service is, for for all intents and purposes, the money maker of a community. If a business or a company or some entity wants to decide where to move to, they will put a call into the fire department and ask them what their rating is."
Most importantly, Harrell said having enough of the best-trained firefighters employed in Hattiesburg improves residents' safety.
"They provide a service for us that is critically important," Harrell said. "I use the analogy of a brain surgeon. My criteria for a brain surgeon (is) they don't have to be from my school. They don't have to be from my family. They don't have to go to my church. They don't have to be of my ethnic group. They don't have to be anything except the very best brain surgeon they can be. Public safety is the same way. When you have a fire where your family's at risk or your property's at risk, you need the best to show up because seconds count."
The Hattiesburg City Council has a public hearing for the city's 2017 budget on Sept. 6.
Council members plan to vote on the budget by a state-mandated Sept. 15 deadline and must have a final budget passed by Oct. 1.