Joplin fire, police unions say pay raises a must

Jul. 29—Joplin's public safety workers say they have answered the calls to put out fires and fight crime about as long as they can without increased pay.

"As professional firefighters we've worked diligently to solve problems," said Adam Grimes of Joplin Professional Firefighters Local 59, International Association of Fire Fighters.

"We have taken cuts to pay and pension benefits and done with less as long as we could," he said. "We are focused on citizen safety, and we don't believe, on our current path, we can continue to provide the current level of service that the residents have been confident with" in view of the difficulties the fire and police departments experience in hiring and retaining qualified personnel.

"We are about at the breaking point; I have to be honest with you," police Chief Sloan Rowland recently told The Joplin Globe's editorial board. "There's not much more we can do to spread resources any thinner and adequately cover the city."

At the police department, where 110 positions are authorized, there has been turnover of 163 officers since 2012, which the chief and the police union attribute largely to pay scales. The chief said that local departments pay as much or more, hiring away officers that Joplin taxpayers paid to train.

Fire department trainees are being recruited away from the department before or at the time they graduate from the fire academy or not long after with $78,000 in Joplin training costs following them out the door, said fire Chief Gerald Ezell.

Both the fire union and the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, Southwest Missouri Lodge 27, are asking voters to pass Proposition Public Safety on Tuesday.

Tom Bowin, treasurer of the Fraternal Order of Police, said of the tax proposal, "This is important to hopefully change the trend of where our department's going with manpower. We can look around and see higher-paying jobs everywhere in law enforcement and most of them with less work to do on a daily basis."

"We need to start holding on to our experienced people and bring in more officers," Bowin said.

"The pay plan this will implement is a good pay plan," he said. "Lodge members and the city worked hard together to get the proposed pay plan in place and our police officers think it is a plan that will do what we need it to do to help turn that trend."

One important piece of the proposal is that it would allow officers who now take retirement at 20 years the option to stay employed or return to the department under the new pay plan.

"Right now our officers who are retiring under the 20-year retirement plan are being forced to take a more than 20% pay cut to stay employed with the city, and be demoted and lose their positions," Brown said. "This would allow them to not have to take a mandatory pay cut in order to serve the citizens and stay in their positions will be an incredible benefit to the citizens."

Luke Stahl, who also is a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that in the detective's division, "we haven't been getting officers as we lose them. So we are running short-staffed which means fewer officers are handling a larger number of cases. We're having to triage those cases, so less cases are getting solved than they have in the past."

He added, "On the patrol side, it's the same factor. We're losing experienced officers who are capable of handling calls quickly and replacing them with new officers who are learning the job in addition to less officers on the street and high call volume. We can't keep doing this."

Grimes said the fire department currently has only one vacancy, "but finding qualified firefighters to fill retirements or for people who have left the department is becoming increasingly difficult. We don't have the volume of applicants to sift through anymore."

That is attributed to the creation of fire departments and fire districts by small towns near or around Joplin that can assess taxes and pay about the same as current wages at the Joplin department.

Additionally, there is no incentive for those who are reaching retirement but are still capable of working to stay with the departments, the public safety workers say. The ballot measure, if passed, would change that by allowing experienced firefighters and officers to stay on the job and retain their ranks while taking their 20-year retirement.

"We anticipate that half to three-quarters of the individuals who are eligible for retirement or would be eligible soon would continue working with the city," Grimes said, based on a straw poll the union local took.

"The main incentive for them is it allows them to keep working for the city and to maintain their current rank and position within the department. The incentive for us is their experience and their ability to save lives and property is going to be far greater than a new employee."

Joplin residents have spoken to the City Council and also have said in some meetings for Proposition Public Safety that they believed the city was to have put new pay scales in place for police and fire from savings to the city's general fund when voters approved Proposition B. Instead, city officials gave a 9% across-the-board pay raises to all full-time city workers whose pay had not kept pace, City Manager Nick Edwards said at the time.

The half-cent Proposition B sales tax approved in 2019 goes only to fully fund the underfunded Joplin Police and Firemen's Pension Fund and to pay the cost of moving police and fire to a state retirement fund.

"Proposition B was never intended to be the solution to the pay problem," Grimes said. "Proposition B was the first step in solving our problems" with fire and police retention.

"If Proposition B had not passed, the pension would be at a catastrophic level now," Grimes said. Instead, he said, the sales tax has generated enough money to potentially pay off the pension ahead of schedule. The tax is to be lifted when the pension reaches a funding level of 120% of benefits owed or in 2032.

Additionally, the city and the union organizations had no signed contracts at that time on pay.

Now, the wage increase agreement is in writing, both in a City Council ordinance that will go into effect if Proposition Public Safety passes and signed contracts with the unions, Grimes said.

"We appreciated the increase we received" as a result of Proposition B, "and we had hoped to receive a little more; however, even if they had taken the whole amount saved (on pension contributions), it still would not solve the wage problem for the long run," Grimes said.

"We do believe this new proposition will resolve a lot of our problems. No one has a crystal ball, but it does give us a dedicated funding level in writing so that the firefighters and police officers can have peace of mind."