Family members pinned lieutenant bars last week on sergeants Otis Bonds and Jason Rodgers in the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department’s final 2014 promotions.
Beginning next year, firefighters up for promotion will go before a Civil Service Board mandated through consolidation.
The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office already has been using a board to select candidates for jobs and promotions. Over the first part of the year, the board brought former Macon police officers into the system, and some have been promoted.
The merger of those two agencies exposed annual salary gaps of $350-$9,000, Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said.
“The thing that caused the biggest problem with disparities, for years and years the police department did not have a pay scale that gave them merit raises,” Davis said.
Although Bibb deputies started at a lower rate, their merit raises of up to 4 percent elevated salaries.
The widest gaps are among those with seven to 10 years of service, Davis said.
With about 60 deputy vacancies, the sheriff plans to use savings from budgeted salaries to give raises to former police officers who are underpaid compared with what the sheriff calls legacy deputies.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to have enough money to address disparity issues,” Davis said. “When you have two people sitting there in the same division, it’s a fairness issue.”
In the meantime, county managers are working on a systemwide salary structure to correct pay inequities in other departments.
Fire Chief Marvin Riggins was essentially already running a consolidated department as there was not a separate entity covering unincorporated Bibb County.
Pay parity has been an issue in the past between police and firefighters.
In 2007, both departments lost incentive pay, a type of bonus paid based on time of service, training and schooling.
The sheriff’s office has been awarding incentive pay since 1983, which makes former police officers eligible again.
Riggins has proposed his own plan, which he prefers to call a succession plan, rather than focusing on the monetary incentives.
“It provides a vehicle for our people to see and grasp hold of and move into fire education,” Riggins said. “It better prepares them for promotions and better prepares them for that role.”
The University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government is preparing a new promotions assessment to identify candidates for fire promotions in 2015, Riggins said.
Unlike the past, firefighters will now have to clear a Civil Service Board, which consists of Louie Hargrove, Rick Hutto, Cliff Rushin and Walter Timley.
Mary Hicks Wimberly has been nominated to the fifth position on the board and could be approved next week.
“It’s basically a vetting process,” Riggins said. “I hope that we’ve done a good enough job that when they sit in front of this board that they will shine like they normally would.”
Riggins is still waiting to hear whether funding for his succession plan will be approved. He believes any additional expense will be an investment into better fire protection.
“It brings a lot of value to the fire service and the community,” he said. “To use those skills to improve the county as they are benefiting themselves is a win-win situation.”
Davis realizes some veteran firefighters who were used to being on equal footing with police officers could resent deputies’ incentive pay, which will be paid in a lump sum every December.
“It’s one of those things we hope a rising tide will lift all boats,” Davis said. “I hope the firefighters get everything they deserve. That’s an issue that’s completely up to the county folks.”
Davis expects to begin raising former police salaries after the first of the year and continue with budget surpluses through the end of the fiscal year in June.
Going forward, those increases must be budgeted.
“I don’t think anybody foresaw before consolidation things like this parity issue,” Davis said. “I don’t think anybody knew until we got together.”
At the end of five years, the Macon-Bibb government is supposed to reduce spending by 20 percent, but Davis thinks that figure is overly optimistic with the need for pay scales.
“It’s better to go ahead and take care of these issues now than to have these lingering issues going forward,” he said. “If you fix this disparity and don’t do anything for anyone else, then you’ve created another disparity.”
As Davis nears the end of the first year of the merger, he does not anticipate major staff cuts.
“If we see any reductions at all, it will be in some of the ranked positions from sergeants all the way up to majors. Nothing is off the table,” he said.
He cautions that resolving salary levels could take years, as it did when Savannah police and Chatham deputies formed one department.
“Here, it’s not just law enforcement but county workers verses former city employees,” he said. “Also you have to make sure you’re doing something for everybody. That’s where the pay scale comes in.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.