Ambulance

The public safety bleeding has to stop, but how quickly can a tourniquet be applied?

That was the talk at the county commissioners’ table last week.

Madison County’s EMS and Sheriff’s office staff are paid significantly less than the same employees in surrounding counties, and leaders of those agencies told commissioners that they can’t hold onto employees who leave for better-paying jobs in other counties, nor can even they fill some of the vacancies they currently have.

County commissioners met for close to three hours Jan. 14 to discuss the 2021 Madison County budget. The group reviewed each departmental budget. But the talk primarily centered on the strain on Madison County public safety services during the pandemic and the inability of county services to hang on to experienced employees.

“We’re trying to fill the voids,” said BOC Chairman Todd Higdon. “EMS has double doors leading out. We’re trying to raise the salaries and benefits to retain the people we have.”

County EMS director Bobby Smith told the board that his staff is paid roughly $4-to-$5 an hour less than employees in neighboring counties. Madison County has no major retail base like Banks, Jackson and Clarke counties. Local leaders say that is having a serious effect on Madison County public safety. He said his medics start at $13.5 an hour versus $17 or 18 in other counties.

“Public safety-wise, we’re drowning,” Smith told commissioners. “We have to do something quickly. It (the short staffing) has come quicker than I expected…We don’t have Jackson County or Banks County money, but we’ve got to get somewhere close to compete.”

With EMS short-staffed, employees are saddled with overtime hours in a pandemic year, which boosts their paychecks, but also burns them out. The overtime hours, which are paid at a higher rate, also inflate the county’s cost.

Smith said the pool of potential paramedics is also shrinking, adding that there is “a huge paramedic and EMT shortage in Georgia.” He noted that in a local training school, there were only nine recent graduates. Madison County is competing with better-paying counties for a smaller supply of workers. That means vacancies aren’t getting filled.

Madison County Sheriff Michael Moore and Chief Deputy Jeffrey Vaughn said the sheriff’s office is in the same boat as EMS. Vaughn said fewer people are wanting to go into law enforcement these days. And competing with higher-paying counties for a smaller pool of potential workers is increasingly difficult.

“I can’t hire the positions I’m down,” said Vaughn. “…There’s no retention because that gap (in pay) is so far.”

Moore said the call volume for deputies is also increasing, with over 21,000 calls last year.

“Due the rooftops coming in, we’re always shorthanded even if we’re fully staffed,” he said.

Larry Cox, a candidate for BOC chairman in 2020, asked the board to do something.

“I beg you to find some more to get these people up to the pay scale,” he said.

And board members seemed eager to do exactly that. There was no hesitation to add money to the sheriff’s and EMS budget for personnel in 2021. The question was, how much?

Higdon presented the board with a proposed budget last week, which included increases for overall salaries in the departments. He discussed boosting pay incrementally over the next four years to bring the departments in line with surrounding counties.

But board members favored bolder action, and the chairman agreed.

New District 1 commissioner Dennis Adams said more money must be put toward retaining public safety staff.

“We have a moral obligation to the people who put us here (at the BOC table) to help these people here (public safety),” said Adams, who added that an employee’s performance is compromised if he or she is working too many overtime hours.

The commissioners would need to boost EMS by approximately $400,000 and the sheriff’s office by $450,000 to bring salaries in line with surrounding counties. That sort of increase is too steep to make in one year, but the board agreed to boost funds for those departments beyond what was presented by the chairman, which included a $100,000 overall increase for the sheriff’s office/jail and $75,000 overall increase for EMS. The board discussed tacking on another $110,000 for EMS and $85,000 for sheriff’s office staff. A total dollar figure for that increase will be approved at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25 when the commissioners pass the approximate $18.7 million 2021 county budget. Commissioners expect to end the year with an almost $700,000 fund balance.

The proposed budget also includes a three-percent cost-of-living increase for county employees who aren’t getting departmental raises. Higdon said exactly how the additional funds for public safety will be distributed will be determined later, but the aim is to keep employees in the county and to attract good employees to the departments.

Commissioners also heard from county coroner Julie “Coach” Harrison, who reported that the number of indigent burials — bodies not claimed by families — is going up. She said there were 28 in 2020 and already six in 2021 as of Jan. 14. She said funeral homes are also increasing their price on the county for their services, while the cost of body bags and other supplies are going up on her department due to covid. Harrison said that some indigent cases involve families that truly can’t pay, but not all of them. And Harrison works to recover money from those that actually can pay so that burial is not at the taxpayers’ expense. The commissioners agreed that a policy needs to be established to clarify what should be considered “indigent.”

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