Fire levy opponent: Salaries are fine; staffing not
It's staffing levels, not salaries, that fire levy opponents want to cut to make the Liberty Township Fire Department more affordable.
A survey found the Liberty Township fire department compares favorably with departments in neighboring communities in terms of employee costs.
Liberty Township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber surveyed 10 other city and township departments, mostly in Delaware County, and found Liberty Township's cost-per-firefighter to be in the middle of the pack, and slightly below the average, when comparing individual salary and retirement benefits.
Within the communities included in the survey, Liberty Township ranks sixth out of 11 in total compensation including salaries and pensions.
Firefighter-paramedic salaries in the township average $66,594, plus a 32 percent pension contribution for a total average cost per employee of $87,904
When compared with communities that pay more, including Columbus ($104,330), Westerville ($98,396), Washington Township ($93,386) and Delaware ($92,987), Liberty Township's compensation is below the average, Gerber's survey showed.
Genoa Township pays the least among the surveyed communities at $81,136. Worthington, Marysville, Concord Township and Orange Township also pay slightly less than Liberty.
The survey does not compare health-care benefits, but Liberty Township Administrator Dave Anderson said reductions in the newest contract will save the township $750,000 over five years.
Those reductions are being phased in over a three-year period. Firefighters pay 12 percent of health-care costs in 2012; 15 percent in 2013; and 18 percent in 2014. Members with single coverage pay a $1,000 deductible all three years, and those with family coverage pay $2,000. Both plans also include a health savings account.
Trustee Melanie Leneghan, who opposes the 6.6-mill levy headed for the Nov. 6 ballot, argues the township's fire department is bloated and overstaffed -- but she said costs for individual firefighters are right where they should be.
"I do not take any issue with what they earn," Leneghan said Aug. 30. "In none of my arguments have I ever said we should lower their pay."
But Leneghan stirred controversy over the summer when she suggested salary cuts could be part of a contingency plan to keep the local fire department viable if the levy fails.
She suggested a small staff could be temporarily maintained by drastically cutting base salaries to as low as $32,000.
"That's just one thing we could do, and only in an emergency situation," she said.
In that case, she would hope to pass a smaller levy and reinstate more-typical staffing levels and pay.
Levy backers, including Anderson and Gerber, counter the rules of collective bargaining would make such cuts virtually impossible, and even cuts that drastic wouldn't be enough to maintain a small department if its revenue stream dried up.
They also warn such a plan could make the township non-competitive and unable to attract high-quality employees.
"You can't offer jobs for $32,000 when everyone else is making $65,000," Gerber said Aug. 29. "You only get the right employees if you're competitive."
"You basically end up with people who are less qualified."
Fire officials also maintain that current staffing levels -- 15 firefighters on duty per shift -- are in line with neighboring communities as well as national fire regulations.
And they say they're necessary to maintain top-notch service and quick response times.
The proposed levy would generate $8,457,975 per year and cost residents $202.43 annually for each $100,000 in home value. The current levy costs residents $143.17 yearly per $100,000 in home value.