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Midway Fire and Rescue: Council hears plea for pay raises

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Dr. Morgan Lowry said she was appalled and embarrassed when she learned how much the Midway Fire and Rescue personnel who answered a fire alarm at her home in North Litchfield are paid.

The damage to her home proved minor, but Lowry has become an advocate for higher pay for the men and women at Midway Fire and Rescue. She presented a petition with 100 signatures to members of county council this week, asking that taxes in the Midway tax district be raised by $30 per household and fire department personnel each be given a $5,000 raise.

“Compared to surrounding counties,” Lowry said, “Midway personnel are drastically underpaid and the county is losing EMTs and paramedics.” She called the pay scale morally questionable and shortsighted.

She is not alone. County Council Member Ron Charlton called for improved pay when he spoke at the Midway Fire and Rescue 50th anniversary celebration in December.

The county cut pay for all employees by 3 percent in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, it gave a 3 percent bonus. To get Midway salaries on par with other departments in the region it needs that 3 percent plus another 2 percent, said Tom Koltak, who chairs the Midway board.

“That’s to bring them up to a level playing field,” he said.

In addition to the cost of turnover, the pay scale makes it hard to attract new recruits, he said.

“The county’s attitude is cut, cut, cut,” he said.

But if Midway can’t meet its staffing requirements, it could impact the ISO rating that determines insurance rates in the district. Dropping from a Class 4 to a Class 5 rating would cost $70 for every $100,000 of value, Koltak said.

Raising the tax rate in the district by 1 mill would cost $40 for a home and $60 for a commercial property.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Koltak said.

After Tuesday’s council meeting, Lowry said 39 employees have left Midway in the past two years for better pay. She calculated the turnover rate at 70 percent.

“We are paying these men and women $3,000 above the poverty line to risk their lives,” she said. “They are protecting million-dollar vacation homes and provide EMT, haz-mat and water rescue for residents and visitors.”

She said an acquaintance is engaged to a paramedic in Wilmington, N.C., making $43,000 a year. “If he took a job at Midway,” she said, “he would have to cross-train as a firefighter and work for $31,000. He’s looking at a job at MUSC.”

Lowry began circulating a petition among individuals and business owners, asking the minimum pay at Midway be raised to $33,500.

“We will lose highly trained, dedicated professionals who have committed their lives to the safety and survival of all of us,” she wrote in a letter to council members. “I assert that we should pay them an amount at least equivalent to, if not competitive with surrounding departments (Georgetown, Conway, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach). If not, we will likely lose them to neighboring departments, only as a result of not valuing them and paying them fairly and equally for their sacrifice.

“We are all paid commensurate with our training, education and risk accepted as a part of our jobs. To not acknowledge the tremendous risk that these men and women accept each and every day on behalf of us is unacceptable, and in my opinion, which is shared by the other residents and business owners who have affixed their signatures to this document, needs to be remedied.”

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