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County fire dept. facing staffing issues

The Clark County Fiscal Court narrowly approved a measure to increase salaries for battalion chiefs at the county fire department and begin dealing with a staffing issue.

The issue centered around the position of training officer and fire marshal, which was previously filled by Clark County Fire Chief Ernie Barnes. The position has been vacant since his promotion in March, but was combined with battalion chief in the county’s compensation plan. Barnes wanted the battalion chief part removed from the pay plan, and the raise would move the three battalion chiefs above the fire marshal/training officer position, which carries the rank of major.

After a lengthy discussion over several meetings, the court finally approved the first reading Wednesday with a 4-3 vote. Magistrates Greg Elkins, Daniel Konstantopoulos and Joe Graham voted no.

Elkins wanted to use the cost of the grade increases, about $45,000, to do something for everyone in the fire department instead of the three battalion chiefs.

“I think there’s a better way,” Elkins said. “Let’s give that to the whole department.”

Barnes said he wanted to propose a grade increase for the department captains in the next fiscal year.

“We’re coming back for the 90 percent,” Judge-Executive Henry Branham said. “We can’t do it today. I promise you that.”

Magistrate Robert Blanton voted for the change reluctantly.

“I believe we do have a problem” starting with the firefighters at the bottom,” he said. “If” this doesn’t work, don’t come back.”

Magistrate Pam Blackburn changed her position after researching the scope of duties for battalion chiefs and what they are paid by neighboring department. The change, she said, would put the county fire department on par with those.

“I think we’re below the national average on what battalion chiefs make,” Blackburn said. “Mine (reason is) factual. Experience is worth something also.”

The fire department is facing an overall staffing issue. Barnes said two firefighters recently resigned and a third is expected to leave as well. Three others, including one battalion chief, are off on workers compensation leaving, at best, six firefighters to respond to calls in the county, Barnes said.

The fire marshal position has not been advertised until the battalion chief pay issue is resolved and current advertisements for firefighters have not yielded any qualified candidates, he said. Some of the department’s current volunteers are interested in becoming full-time firefighters, but lack the necessary EMT and physical activity certifications.

“We currently have 17 people doing shift work when we should have 21,” Barnes said. “It’s not an overnight problem.”

Barnes was tasked with developing a plan to rectify the situation and present it during the court’s July 11 meeting,  including competitive pay grades and hiring new firefighters.

Blanton wanted to see the proposal before the second reading of the battalion chief ordinance.

“That may make a difference on what we do,” he said.

“We just used all that bucket money,” Elkins said.

“We’ll have to find money,” Branham said.

In other action, the court:

— approved the second reading of the fiscal year 2019 budget unanimously.

— approved the second reading of a joint city-county sign ordinance unanimously.

— appointed Stephanie Roarx to the Winchester-Clark County Recreation, Tourist and Convention Commission for a three-year term.

— approved orders for acting officer, uniform and station sanitation procedures for Clark County Fire Department.

— a motion to disband the fire, road department, animal shelter and insurance committees died for lack of a second.

— scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Friday for possible transfers for the end of the fiscal year.

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email fred.petke@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0051.

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