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Council meets with fire department

The Park Hills City Council spent more than an hour of its Tuesday evening meeting attempting to find a solution to a discrepancy between city ordinance and the manner in which members of the Park Hills Fire Department are compensated for responding to calls after the matter was discussed at a meeting earlier this month.

Present to discuss the matter were Fire Chief John Reeves and Assistant Chief Brad Weiss, each describing the department’s perspective on the matter and providing suggestions for the council to consider.

Reeves addressed the council first, expressing concern about how the situation was portrayed at the earlier meeting.

“It sounds like we’re laying at home on the couch and getting paid,” Reeves said. “Well, we’re not. We’re showing up for calls and we’re doing our job.”

Reeves said that after the department had switched from an hourly pay rate several years ago, the adopted manner for issuing compensation became what it is now, though it conflicts with city policy as expressed in the ordinance governing the department.

The ordinance states that firefighters shall receive compensation, with the amounts varying for the types of calls, only for calls to which they physically respond. Until recently, firefighters who were actively responding to one call while others were being dispatched received pay for the additional calls as well, despite not being physically present.

Reeves gave an example of a situation that can make it difficult and seemingly unfair to pay firefighters strictly how the ordinance states it be done. He described a recent scenario in which the department responded to a motor vehicle accident.

Approximately eight firefighters responded to the accident. While the firefighters were on the scene, a separate medical call was received by the department. Four of the members of the department then responded to the medical call and returned to the firehouse after being informed they were not needed at the motor vehicle accident. A few minutes later, they were again called to the same medical call for additional assistance. In the time that the four firefighters had responded to three calls, technically, the other four were still on the scene of the first call.

“So the four of us … Do we get paid for three calls?” Reeves asked. “And does the crew that was on that scene that whole time only get paid for one call? This is what we’re trying to figure out — how we can be equal for everybody.”

“I know what the ordinance says,” Reeves said. “But how do you break that down?”

Mayor Daniel Naucke said that, by ordinance, the four who responded to the three calls should have been paid for three calls, while those that had been on the scene of the original accident call should only be paid for one.

Reeves and Naucke discussed the amount of calls received by the department this fiscal year, then Reeves asked Weiss to speak to the council and present the department’s suggestion.

“In regards to the ordinance — the biggest thing that we came up with after talking to members and decided what we felt was fair, the problem we came back to was similar to the ordinance and the misinterpretation of how it’s worded and most of us not knowing,” Weiss said.

Weiss then handed the council copies of a proposed rewording of the ordinance in order to bring it in line with how the department handles payment.

“The basis of what I’m going to hand you was us rewording the ordinance to reflect what we felt was fair to everybody,” Weiss said. “I’m hoping you will ask me questions and I’m hoping from that point we can move forward.

“But this was what everybody thought was the most fair, based on the fact that — not saying that we were doing it right, but in the past 19 years, this is how we’ve been paid. That’s what I tried to reflect in writing.”

Weiss said he had checked with other departments in the area, and most are paid in the same manner. The proposed ordinance rewrite he provided would maintain the compensation procedure of paying all active firefighters for concurrent calls, but would make the procedure legal by ordinance.

Naucke asked Weiss if under his proposed ordinance a firefighter who responds to a fire call but stays at the firehouse would be paid the same as firefighters who respond physically to the scene.

“If it’s a structure fire and it’s ours, you should be on the scene,” Weiss said. “There’s no reason you should be sitting in the firehouse.”

Naucke said while it shouldn’t happen, it could and has, and would be permissible by Weiss’ rewritten ordinance.

“In order to clarify all of that, the ordinance would have to be 100 pages long, or we’ll have to go back to our (standard operating guidelines) which say that if there’s a structure fire, you have to be on-scene,” Weiss said.

Ward 1 Councilman Adam Bowers asked if the city could legally pay firefighters for calls to which they had not responded, expressing concern that doing so could open the city up to legal trouble.

“It’s simple as that,” Naucke said. “If you don’t do the job, how are we paying you? I understand that they’re sitting at the firehouse and I understand that they’re getting up out of bed, but they’re volunteers.”

City Attorney Ed Pultz observed that much of the difficulty in regard to payment of volunteer fire departments lies in the fact that volunteer fire departments are odd legal entities, as they can not be considered city employees without the city being obligated to additional compensation.

The council and Weiss then discussed the total amount of hours and costs associated with the fire department on a monthly basis. Weiss said the average amount of hours logged by firefighters with the department is between 60 and 70 hours, with a total number of 250 to 315 hours per month being spent by the department physically on calls, excluding training.

In addition to compensation for individual calls, each type of which has an associated dollar amount, the chief is paid a monthly stipend of $300, the assistant chief is paid $250, and the secretary and captains are paid $100 per month. The department currently has a roster of 19 firefighters.

Ward 2 Councilman Larry LaChance then brought the conversation back to the payment of firefighters who had not physically responded to a call.

“I don’t think we were questioning the amount of pay you guys were getting,” LaChance said. “I think the question was — like your example with one group doing three calls while another did one call, we didn’t see that it was right that the group doing one call should get paid for the other three that they never even went to.”

Weiss then suggested the possibility of going to a per-hour rate for active firefighters, which LaChance then responded to with another alternative, for there to be a month-based flat rate budgeted for firefighters, with the stipulation that each responds to a certain percentage of calls to receive compensation.

“I think it would be difficult because one person could get their percentage at the first, and then not make any for a long time,” Weiss said. “You take a chance either way.”

The council next asked Weiss about the logistics of a call received by the department, asking for clarification about what types of calls the department responds to and how many firefighters are individually paged for the call. Weiss said with the department being volunteer, every firefighter is paged for every call, as it is unknown how many could respond.

Weiss was also asked about the department responding to EMS calls and how they are determined to be worthy of a department response on the basis of call type. It was suggested that the department should respond to fewer EMS calls, while Weiss said that he agreed, though he thought the department should respond to as many of the calls as it can make a difference in.

“You could add a hundred lines to (the ordinance),” Weiss said. “At some point you either have to trust the officers to do what’s right for the city and fire department and have some oversight, or write a 100-line ordinance. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Ward 4 Councilman Steven Weinhold remarked that he understood that the problem had originally been noticed six months ago, with the department being notified that the procedure of payment needed to fall in line with city ordinance. Weiss said that is what he understood to be true, although he and the other firefighters had not been notified until after the recent flooding had caused an influx of calls and several firefighters were expecting payment for multiple calls.

Reeves said the fault in not communicating the change to the department was partially his fault, as he had misunderstood what he had been told.

“I don’t know what happened in the past,” Naucke said. “That’s neither here nor there. But when it’s brought to my attention, my job is to fix it.”

Bowers then said that he had been running numbers during the meeting in regards to budgeting the total department budget for each firefighter, providing each with a maximum amount of pay that would depend on the firefighter responding to 100 percent of calls, with the pay lessening depending on the amount of calls actually responded to on a quarterly basis.

Ward 4 Councilman John Clark expressed concern about whether such a system would provide firefighters with pay comparable to what they currently receive, which was briefly discussed.

Weiss asked for time to examine the proposed procedure on paper and Naucke suggested that City Administrator Mark McFarland, Weiss, Reeves and Bowers sit down and try to come up with a proposal on paper for the city attorney and the other councilmen to review. Weiss and Reeves said the proposal could make sense and agreed to meet and discuss it.

“I appreciate you guys coming in,” Naucke said before moving on with the meeting. “Let’s get it worked out.”

Park Hills Fire Department Assistant Chief Brad Weiss discusses potential solutions to a disconnect between city ordinance and compensation procedure for firefighters with the Park Hills City Council Tuesday.

Park Hills Fire Department Assistant Chief Brad Weiss discusses potential solutions to a disconnect between city ordinance and compensation procedure for firefighters with the Park Hills City Council Tuesday.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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