A letter to the Editor in the June 5 edition of the Georgetown Times from members of the Midway Fire Rescue Board of Directors made a case for their need of more money and attention from County Council.
The problem is not a new one.
According to the letter, the Board says Midway Fire Rescue needs more money and better benefits in order to create a larger staff capable of accommodating the growing population. Additionally, they state more funds are necessary in order to increase salaries and improve benefits to attract more candidates and keep the ones they have from leaving for better financial opportunities in nearby municipalities.
“Really this is about two things,” Board Chairman Richard Faulk says. “How South Carolina Act 388 is impacting Midway Fire Rescue. It is also about Council’s response, or lack thereof, to the financial struggles Midway is experiencing.”
Act 388 has been a punching bag for budget problems over the years in South Carolina because it limits how much a municipality can increase property taxes. However, Faulk suggests County Council needs to increase the Midway Fire Fund budget significantly as a matter of priority.
Recently, Council approved a 2.5 percent pay raise for all County employees. However, this was seen as evidence of Council’s lack of understanding regarding Midway. Faulk says rescue departments should be considered differently than other County personnel as the value of their work should be reflected by larger salary adjustments. One of his larger debate points is Midway Fire salaries being too low and uncompetitive with surrounding districts.
However, John Thomas, County Council Chairperson, disagrees that salaries are not competitive and suggests the problem presents itself with longevity in regards to salary and benefits.
“Current salaries are comparable or better than other fire departments,” Thomas says. “For example, Midway Fire Fighter/EMT salary is $36,212; Horry County FF/EMT is $35,498; and Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire is FF/EMT $32,860.”
James Mueller, also a board member, agrees with Faulk’s assessment. Mueller, a New Jersey transplant who served as a Firefighter in the Garden State for 33 years, does not understand the County’s management of Midway Fire Rescue.
“These guys are being shortchanged down here,” says Mueller. “Why are they (County Council) so against helping these guys out?”
Mueller says about half of the Midway Fire Rescue staff has revolved over the past three years. The lack of budgetary support from Council is making it difficult to maintain a strong rescue staff, they say.
However, it is not as simple as giving more money, Thomas says. He said the county is currently only able to balance the budget by utilizing reserve funds, an unsustainable financial practice.
Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman is not so hard on County Council, however.
“They (Council) do the best they can do, given what they have to work with,” Eggiman says.
The issues that could be addressed with more money are varied and include pharmaceutical costs, ambulance responses, and pensions.
Eggiman points out an extreme case where the cost for a required drug they carry has increased 700 percent. Another example is the Epi-pen which increased in price from $100 in 2007 to $608 in 2016. He also notes the struggles of staffing ambulance calls which reduce the number of fire staff available in case of an emergency. All Midway Fire Rescue fire staff are cross-trained and operate on both the fire and EMS sides of the department. As local populations grow and tourists swell the numbers during the summer, increased call volumes stretch their staff thin.
“It is at a critical point where we’re running 4 or 5 ambulances at once. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Eggiman says. “It takes away from people available for fire engines.”
It doesn’t take much to imagine a worst case scenario where you have a bunch of rescue calls putting on-duty staff in ambulances during the summer and a fire breaks out.
The problems surrounding tax caps imposed by Act 388 are exacerbated by several other issues according Thomas.
“The upcoming budget year is one of the most difficult the county has seen since the Great Recession a decade ago,” Thomas says. “The growth of expenses is outpacing the growth of revenue as a result of several issues, including revenues that are still recovering from the recession and rising costs that the county has no control over, such as state retirement contributions, insurance premiums and health care.”
Taking care of retired rescue personnel is also not just a fiduciary matter but an ethical one, Eggiman adds. He points out the sacrifice first responders make not only risking their lives, but sacrificing their health in many cases. Furthermore, it is not just increased rates of cancer or other physical/biological injuries that should be considered, but mental and psychological ones as well, he says.
More firefighters die of suicide every year than in actual fires, Eggiman says, adding that Post-traumatic Stress Disorders occur at rates similar to military personnel. Furthermore, he says life expectancy for firefighters is 10 years less than average American citizens.
He believes local citizens would support Midway Fire Rescue needs with increased property taxes beyond the cap limits of Act 388 if they were able to do so.
“The challenge with 388,” he says, “is it’s taken the ability to decide what level of fire protection they want out of their hands and put it in the State’s hands.”
Chief Eggiman estimates about $50,000 would need to be budgeted for each new firefighter position and would like nine more staff members total. That’s about $450,000 additional every year.
The 2019-2020 budget currently has a 3.1 percent millage increase for the Midway Fire Fund to accompany a 0.9 per percent increase in taxable values. However, that same budget advertises a small decrease in the overall budget for Fire Rescue in the next fiscal cycle compared to the previous year. Thomas says the decrease is a result of disaster/hurricane response funds which were included in the prior year's budget.
“It’s a challenging time,” Eggiman says.