Spotsylvania is struggling to keep and recruit deputies and firefighters, according to both the sheriff and emergency management chief. That’s why they’re asking county supervisors to improve pay for their workers.

Sheriff Roger Harris and Fire Chief Jay Cullinan recently presented a report to the Board of Supervisors laying out the staffing issues and possible solution in the form of a pay scale guideline.

Cullinan told the board at its Jan. 22 meeting that eventually the pay scale increases would be similar to what the county seeks to do with its staff across the board. But he told the board the initial increase “would be a significant amount.”

Cullinan said the initial cost would be $1.5 million for the Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management Department and $1.3 million for the Sheriff’s Office. In the years following, it would cost $600,000 a year for both departments.

Several supervisors spoke favorably of the proposal and suggested pay changes are needed countywide. The county’s finance staff will review the proposal.

Supervisor Greg Benton, a former Spotsylvania firefighter and sheriff’s deputy, said the county needs to start looking at a way to pay fire and rescue crews and deputies and detectives what they deserve.

“It’s time to quit nickel-and-diming this stuff,” he said, adding that changes should come for all county staff.

Supervisor Chris Yakabouski agreed, saying the county needs to stop delaying action on the issue. Supervisor Kevin Marshall praised the plan and said it should be implemented countywide as a way to keep staff from leaving for more money.

According to the report, the Sheriff’s Office ended 2018 with 14 vacancies in a department of 240 deputies. Six of those who left took a similar job for more pay elsewhere, according to the report.

Training deputies is time consuming and costly, according to the report. It takes between a year and 18 months to prepare a deputy for full duty. Training includes a 22-week academy and more than 450 hours of “field training,” all at a cost of $75,000 for each new recruit.

The most recent round of hiring by the Sheriff’s Office ended with six new deputies out of 208 applicants.

Harris told the board he will not lower standards just to fill vacancies. The sheriff said in an interview that his office has focused on recruiting from the military and state colleges, but it’s a tough sell.

“Young people don’t want to have a job with a gun and bulletproof vest for $40,000,” Harris said in an interview.

He and Cullinan believe a new pay plan could help draw new recruits while also preventing experienced staff from leaving for more money. The new plan would be modeled on the military, setting a determined scale based largely on tenure and performance.

Cullinan said the new pay approach would make things “simpler and more streamlined,” helping determine pay on a set scale to avoid inconsistent results.

For instance, one lieutenant with eight years’ experience now earns about $56,000 a year while another lieutenant with seven years’ experience earns about $58,000. The difference could have come from several factors, including what the pay rate was at the time the employee’s salary was set, Cullinan said.

The new program would base salaries on what comparable jurisdictions are paying. In this case, the salary for the lieutenant with eight years’ experience would increase to about $66,000, while the lieutenant with a year less experience would get a raise to about $65,000.

Experienced fire and rescue crews—as well as deputies and detectives—will prove to be worth the higher salary, the chief and sheriff told the board. They are more efficient at their jobs and use new skills to perform more duties.

The report states that experienced deputies can handle a call in half the time it takes an inexperienced deputy. Also, experienced deputies and detectives fill in specialty roles, such as SWAT, narcotics or dive teams.

Harris said many of those who leave do it to earn more money, which he understands. Cullinan agreed, telling supervisors that those who leave have to look out for themselves and their families.

He told the board the county has averaged losing 20 firefighters per year over the past three years.

According to Cullinan, it costs $26,750 to train a firefighter, and the loss in training tied to the departing crew members the past three years amounts to more than half a million dollars. He said five firefighters have resigned already this year.

Harris said in an interview that the pay plan would improve upon a consultant’s study done in 2017 to determine pay scales. Yakabouski said the study was fine, but the county needs to press forward to keep experienced and qualified staff.

“We need to address it,” he said. “If we continue to push this down the road, the bill gets bigger, the problem gets larger and it gets even harder to get control of it.”

Harris said he doesn’t favor tax increases or taking funds from other county departments, but it will take more money to keep the staff he needs.

“There comes a point in time,” he said in an interview, “where you’ve got to keep abreast of the times.”

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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