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Cities: Separation pay for firefighters, EMS costly

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Elizabeth City Firefighters practice fighting a house fire during a controlled burn exercise on Feb. 21, 2017. New legislation would would grant a separation allowance to paid firefighters and emergency medical services personnel who retire with 30 years of service.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A first responders' advocacy group is pushing for a new benefit for retired firefighters and rescue squad workers — one currently enjoyed by retired police officers — but municipal officials across the state, including in Elizabeth City, warn it will be hard to pay for.

The Parity For First Responders legislation, House Bill 278, and its companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 179, would grant a separation allowance to firefighters and emergency medical services personnel who retire with 30 years of service. If they retire at age 60, they would only need 25 years of service, according to the proposed legislation. Currently, that benefit is available only to law enforcement retirees.

The text of the legislation also states that the earliest firefighters or EMS personnel could collect the benefit would be July 1, 2024.

The benefit would vary based on the salary someone retires with, but would be around $1,000 a month per retiree, according to Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association of North Carolina. The legislation would provide parity for paid firefighters and EMS personnel because it grants them no more and no less than what police retirees now get, he said.

Lewis argues that first responders need a separation allowance, which would be in addition to their state pensions, to acknowledge the professionalism, dangers, and physical toll of their jobs. Firefighters in their 50s wrestle with muscle and bone injuries and have heightened risks of cancer, he said.

The benefit would let other first responders besides law enforcement officers “retire with dignity” and help cover their higher-than-normal health costs, Lewis said.

The N.C. League of Municipalities opposes the parity legislation, however. That's because the General Assembly's own analysts have estimated the benefit would cost $300 million for eligible employees, and the legislation provides no funding to cover that cost, spokesman Scott Mooneyham said in an interview Monday.

If the General Assembly believes the benefit is a priority, it should help pay for it, rather than passing down another “unfunded mandate,” he said.

Mooneyham also said the additional benefit comes as municipalities are being forced to put more money into the Local Government Employees' Retirement System. Municipalities are being required to contribute another 1.2 percent of payroll a year through 2022 into the system, a cost of more than $76 million a year, he said.

Asked about potential funding sources, Mooneyham said that was up to the General Assembly.

Lewis suggested increased revenue from sales taxes could help fund the separation allowance for professional firefighters and EMS workers. Municipalities could receive more online sales tax revenue, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, or receive more through changing the formula for distributing sales taxes, he suggested.

Lewis also noted municipalities got authority to levy two sales taxes in 1986, to help pay for police separation pay when it was first established. That's generated more than enough revenue to cover the first responder allowances, he claimed.

Lewis also argued that municipalities need to continue to invest in professional firefighters, who are increasingly necessary as volunteer fire departments are harder to staff, and are vital to holding down home insurance costs.

“They've been getting a really good deal for 200 years,” Lewis said of municipalities' fire services.

In Elizabeth City, City Manager Rich Olson shares the NCLM's concerns about the separation pay as an unfunded mandate. Increased retirement contributions will also cost Elizabeth City hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years, he's estimated.

On Friday, Olson said the city has seven retired firefighters who'd be eligible for the separation pay. He couldn't immediately estimate what separation for those seven retirees would cost the city.

He also reported the city had 10 retired police who receive about $119,000 a year in separation pay. Several of the retirees are high-ranking, he noted.

Olson said he understands the arguments for the benefit, including that first responders have physically taxing jobs, but also noted the city has other physically demanding jobs that aren't covered by the benefit.

City Fire Chief Corey Mercer explained Monday he's sympathetic to the legislation, and agreed firefighting takes a toll on the body.

“Obviously, everyone wants parity with police officers,” he said.

However, without a funding source, he warned of a “negative or domino effect,” as the legislation might force economically distressed communities to cut other important investments in the fire service.

Jerry Newell, director of Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Medical Services, agreed with the need for parity with police as well. Police receive not only the separation pay, but other benefits that other first responders don't, he said, adding that EMS agencies are considered a lower tier, or priority, than other responders.

“We're all public safety,” he said.

Newell said he supports the legislation, but added the state has an obligation to fund the separation benefit if it's required. He said Pasquotank-Camden EMS would have few retirees who'd be eligible for the benefit. Most EMS personnel don't stay on the job for 30 years, he said.

Newell also said paramedics' jobs are taxing as well; patients and equipment are increasingly heavy, call volume is growing, and being on call for 24 hours can exhaust workers. There are some 24-hour shifts with little to no downtime, he added.

In interviews last week, area lawmakers said they'd need to further study the legislation and its potential costs.

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