Ind. city firefighters push back against chief's raise

The local union president says members are disheartened by getting lower pay increases than their boss and the police


Carson Gerber
Kokomo Tribune, Ind.

PERU, Ind. — The Peru City Council on Monday approved a 7% raise for the fire chief in next year's budget despite the local firefighters union expressing frustration that they only received a 3% raise.

The vote came after police this year received a 6.5% raise and firefighters received a 2% raise. Police received a higher increase because they agreed to do away with one position.

Firefighter Nathan Hunt, president of Professional Firefighters Union Local 383, told the council Monday that until last year, firefighters and police had always received the same pay increase.

He said police ended up doing away with a position that hadn't been filled in a year to get the bigger raise, but the fire department would have been required to let go a working firefighter in order to get the same raise.

Hunt said they've also lost two firefighters in the last year to higher-paying fire departments. Police said they are also losing officers due to the low starting salaries and pay.

"Keeping the fire department's pay significantly lower than that of the police department will only drive morale down in the department," he said.

Hunt said firefighters also felt "disheartened" by Fire Chief Erick Hawk saying last month that raises should start at the top and work their way down the ranks, which was part of his reasoning for asking for a higher increase than his staff.

"The members of Local 383 feel disheartened and disappointed in that statement," he said. "It's our collective belief that in order to recruit and retain talented young people ... the raises should really begin at the ground level and work their ways upward."

Hunt said that increasing starting pay for firefighters would not only allow them to attract more people, but also boost morale for the entire department.

Peru Mayor Miles Hewitt told the council he decided to give firefighters a 3% raise in next year's budget since they only received a 2% raise this year.

But he argued the fire chief should get a higher increase in order to have the same wage as the police chief, who have always had the same salary. Hewitt also said Hawk had to give up a second job in order to take the chief's position.

Council ended up voting 4-3 to give Hawk the 7% raise, with council members Betsy Edwards-Wolfe, Kathleen Plothow and Steve Anderson voting against the increase.

The vote came after Edwards-Wolfe said the city is in the middle of a public safety crisis, with police officers facing a severe staffing shortage. Low staffing has led some officers to work over 350 hours of overtime and 16-hour shifts just to keep the department open.

Anderson said during last month's meeting that officers this year have worked around 1,700 hours of overtime, which cost the city $78,000. Some have worked 16 days straight, he said, as well as double shifts.

In response, Edwards-Wolfe on Monday proposed cutting out parts of next year's budget in order to fund raises for both officers and firefighters.

Her proposal included cutting out funding for a new fire chief's vehicle, a building department truck and buying three new police cars instead of four. She also suggested not giving any pay raises to elected or appointed officials, and not hiring a new assistant for the mayor.

"I think there is a way to fix this public safety crisis," Edwards-Wolfe said. "There is money. People say there isn't any money, but there is. We just have to make tough choices."

Council then voted on each of her proposals. Cuts that were approved included no pay raise for the mayor, buying three police cars instead of four and reducing the city's beautification fund from $150,000 to $50,000.

However, Hewitt said the cuts were only a quick fix and wouldn't actually help solve the staffing shortages in the police department. He said the city's assessed value and population continue to decrease, and the city isn't bringing in enough tax revenue to fund major pay raises for officers.

"I would love nothing more than to see the police and fire department go up to $50,000 or $55,000, without a doubt," he said. "... But where are we going to pay from to sustain the kinds of raise that we know that we need to give them?"

Next year's budget also includes a 3% pay raise for street department workers, as well as raises for the clerk treasurer, city judge, city attorney and building department commissioner.

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(c)2021 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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