Police, firefighters getting pay increases
Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor

July 7, 2004 -- Pay increases for police and firemen in Sulphur Springs will take a more than 14 percent jump as the city begins the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The more than $337,000 annual payroll increase for the two departments will be paid with franchise fees on three city-owned utilities, rather than an increase in property tax.

Overall increases for police officers and dispatchers amount to 14.1 percent over the current pay. The rate of pay for firefighters will increase by 14.5 percent under the agreement approved during Tuesday night's meeting of Sulphur Springs City Council members.

Sulphur Springs Law Enforcement Association spokesman David Gilmore told the council that the cities of Paris, Bonham, Mount Pleasant and Terrell were surveyed to draw an average of police pay rates in this region of the state. Figures from Hopkins County Sheriff's Office were also used in the survey.

Gilmore said the starting pay rates for police officers in Sulphur Springs were in line with the other cities, but as officers moved up through the ranks, rates of pay fell considerably below those other cities.

Because of the many similarities, the figures from Mount Pleasant were used as a measuring stick for council consideration on the pay request.

"We are asking the council to increase the salaries in order to place the police department in the middle of our survey that we did with these cities, so that our salaries are comparable to our fellow officers in the Northeast Texas region," Gilmore said. "In the average salaries for our department, we are 15.2 percent behind these cities."

A similar difference in the pay scale for firefighters with cities surveyed by that group was also highlighted to the council by Fire Capt. Randy Steele, who said firefighters have taken pay averages of several towns similar in size to Sulphur Springs to illustrate to the council the need to increase pay for firefighters.

One of the main reasons cited was to retain experienced firefighters rather than risk losing them to other cities where the pay is better.

"We have hired six firefighters and they have now gone on to other places that pay better averages," Steel said. "They can make better money for doing the same job."

Steele said more than half the city's firefighters have moved on to better paying jobs over the years. He said the average pay needs to be brought up to what is being paid in those other cities to hold on to the experienced firemen, rather than have them move to other departments because of a higher rate of pay.

With the current salaries paid to starting firefighters, the city is used as a training ground for these new personnel to gain experience at city expense before moving to a better paying job with another city, Steele said.

"We have to pay for their bunker gear, uniforms, training, and of course they want to better themselves and use us as a starting place," Steele told the council. "We would like to get our [pay] averages up so we can hold these people here and see them make a career in Sulphur Springs and retire here."

The agenda for the council meeting listed the two pay request items along with an option for the council to consider calling an election to give voters an option to pay for the increases through property taxes.

Neither the fire nor police organizations recommended the referendum to place the option with taxpayers.

After hearing proposals from both the police and firefighter groups, Mayor Chris Brown offered a suggestion to the council that would involve exploring average pay rates from the six cities surveyed, especially Mount Pleasant, and see how the figures could be applied in Sulphur Springs.

The mayor also asked the council and city staff to find a way the pay raises could be funded on a continuing basis.

"Basically, [we need to] come up with a way for recurring funding for this," Brown said. "The police officers and firefighters definitely deserve to be paid what they deserve, and paid competitively."

Using some creative financing, city staff presented an option to levy franchise fees on utilities to cover the cost of the pay increase.

Council members seemed to settle on three utilities in the city that don't pay franchise fees -- city water, sewer and sanitation -- as a way to fund the increased salaries.

"The straight up and obvious choice of financing is property tax, but you could be talking in terms of 5 or 6 cents to fund all of it," said Finance Director Peter Karstens. "We talked about a funding source that other cities have used, which is to go ahead and charge the three utilities in the city that do not, at this point, pay a franchise fee and go ahead and use that as a source for this general fund activity."

By increasing fees charged for service by the city-owned utilities, the city would then be able to, in effect, levy the franchise tax on itself and pass the cost on to all residents that use the services, rather than increasing the tax rate paid by property owners.

"It's spread out to more people that are going to be benefiting from the activity from police and fire," Karstens said. "You then would allocate it to the average person and it just becomes a part of their bill."

Council members told both fire and police associations the pay increases would be included in and implemented with the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

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