According to payroll documents obtained by The Daily Tribune News, 21 Bartow County EMS paramedics saw increases in their checks. Prior to the increase, the pay range for the group was $9.66 to $17.63 per hour. With the adjustment, those wages went to $13 to $18.26 per hour. The largest pay increase was $3.34 per hour.
Not included in those numbers are three captains who were moved from an hourly rate to salary. Previously they made between $16.07 and $18.67 per hour. All three now make $64,000 per year, or $2,461.54 biweekly.
The decision to grant a select group of county employees a raise was not an easy one, according to county officials.
A statement released by Commissioner Clarence Brown read in part:
"As commissioner you sometimes are faced with difficult decisions with few good choices. Recently, I was faced with such a decision.
"Three years ago, I froze county employees' salaries when it became evident that our revenues were declining because of the economic downturn. Additionally, we had to begin unpaid furloughs for our employees as well as taking other measures to balance the county's budget.
"Recently, I was made aware by our Emergency Medical Services director, Larry Owens, that the Bartow County Ambulance Service has already lost several paramedics to private services because of the rate of pay for paramedics in those private services compared to the county's rate of pay, and that, due to the shortage of trained paramedics, there is more competition between services to hire paramedics."
Those factors combined with the threat of losing the ability to provide Advanced Life Support aboard county ambulances led to the decision to grant pay increases.
Owens said in order to be ALS capable, ambulances must have one paramedic aboard. "Advanced Life Support means exactly what it says -- it means the person can give drug therapy to all types of patients, where EMTs cannot. ALS trucks have to have at least one paramedic on it."
County Administrator Steve Bradley stressed the hesitation county officials had about the raises.
"The commissioner was reluctant to do it. The reason he was reluctant is because of the pay freeze," Bradley said. "If we are going to lose our paramedics, ... [Brown decided to] go ahead and bite the bullet and do it because he was not going to let the public's safety be at risk. That's why he did it, he didn't want to.
"We tried to get it up to be competitive with those private sector. [Brown] was torn on the decision because all the other employees' wages were frozen."
Officials also had the option of privatizing emergency medical services, but citizens would have paid heavily for that choice.
"I was faced with a set of difficult choices. I could leave the paramedics' salaries as they were and face losing more of our experienced paramedics to the private services, or I could privatize the county EMS services by selling to a private provider, in which case, Emergency Medical Service fees would increase for our citizens," Brown said in the statement. "Or I could break the hiring freeze for the paramedics to increase their pay to a more competitive rate in an effort to retain our experienced paramedics."
Instead, the county will implement a 7.5 percent increase to EMS services to cover the roughly $170,000 cost of granting the paramedics raises. See the accompanying chart for a breakdown of the cost difference under the new system.
Owens said only paramedics received a raise, and although he is a certified paramedic, Owens was quick to point out he did not receive a raise. "No, ma'am, I did not. That would have been real tacky. I didn't even think about asking for one."
As expected, the decision was not without some backlash. "I haven't had any directly, but we've heard of some concerns in the fire department and some in the EMTs as well," Bradley said.
Currently employing 43 full-time staff and running seven ambulances out of five stations, the EMS department's budget dropped from $2.2 million in 2010 to $2,070,000 this year. The budget was higher in 2010 because the county had 27 pay dates, instead of the usual 26.
Although encouraging economic signs have been spotted, Bradley said there are no plans to change the county's pay freeze, furlough and overtime policies at this time.