First responder pay

MICHELE W. FOREHAND/DOTHAN EAGLE

A Dothan firefighter gives wide berth to a falling power line while fighting a recent residential fire.

A request to approve the city’s next two-year budget passed Tuesday, but not before some Dothan City Commissioners discussed the need for pay raises for public safety personnel.

The new budget includes a 3% pay increase for those in the police and fire departments beginning Oct. 1, raising the base pay of an entry-level police officer to $37,684.82 and an entry-level firefighter to $36,742.16. For District 2 Commissioner Janasky Fleming, it is not enough-- especially as Dothan prepares to open the Wiregrass Public Safety Center – a regional training facility.

“We’re going to have the top fire and safety training facilities in the world, and I believe our pay should match that,” he said. “It strikes me that we’re not at the top of the pay scale.”

Of the 10 largest cities in Alabama, only Mobile police officers start at a lower salary than Dothan officers, according to a study the city’s personnel department conducted in May. Decatur’s officers make roughly $150 more per year.

Base pay, though, does not necessarily accurately depict pay discrepancies, Dothan Personnel Director Delvick McKay said. Cost of living must be included in the discussion, and Dothan’s ranks the lowest of the 10 largest cities in Alabama.

When factoring in the cost of living, Dothan police officer base pay tops Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Madison and Decatur, according to the city study. Dothan City Manager Kevin Cowper said benefits packages must also be considered when assessing the full value of an employee’s salary.

In that realm, Dothan police officers and firefighters do have opportunities for advancement.

Police officers with associate’s degrees earn a 2.5% bump, while bachelor’s degrees earn a 5% increase. A master’s degree is worth an extra 7.5%.

Police officers, like all city employees, also have opportunities to earn performance-based raises as well.

Firefighters who complete advanced emergency medical technician training earn an additional 3%, while paramedics garner an extra 9%. City officials instilled the incentives to try to curb staff shortages produced by retirements and departures to other departments, mainly Fort Rucker, said Dothan Fire Chief Larry Williams.

“We’ve had 12 leave for Fort Rucker in the last three years,” he said. “We’re running five and six vacancies consistently between retirements and Fort Rucker.”

Retirements will only increase as several firefighters will reach the 25-year service milestone that begins the state’s retirement package. In a given year an average of 10 DFD firefighters reach the benchmark, but in two years, a whopping 30 will be eligible – leaving the department with about 55 retirement-eligible firefighters, Williams said.

Williams said pay becomes a factor in the recruiting of new firefighters, as does a change in the state’s retirement system a few years ago that added a qualifying age to retire on top of the service benchmark. He noted the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs has campaigned to reverse some aspects of that adjustment.

Moving forward, city commissioners will likely encounter a request to conduct a full-scale wage study for all city employees next month, Cowper said. The study will reassess Dothan’s job descriptions to account for any changes that have occurred due to technological advances or other factors.

The study will then compare Dothan’s pay rates to similar positions in cities of comparable size in Alabama and in the Southeast. Cowper also emphasized cost of living will be included in the assessment and in any recommendations made to the Dothan City Commission.

When it comes to public safety personnel, Cowper believes salaries approach what the market demands.

“Based on the cost of living in Dothan, we are in fairly good shape I would say,” he said. “I don’t think we’re paying dramatically less. The commission over the last several years has done a good job of providing cost-of-living increases and providing for performance-based increases for employees.”

However, Cowper also wants to ensure Dothan employees receive fair compensation – which fuels the need for a study.

“We want to pay very well,” he said. “We’ve got a high-performing organization, and they deserve to be well-compensated. This study’s going to help us set where we are exactly in relation to other communities.”

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