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Firefighters take protest to City Hall

June 15, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Paid Martinsburg firefighters picketed City Hall on Friday to protest newly approved raises that favor the city's police officers.

At a meeting Thursday night, the Martinsburg City Council unanimously approved raises for all city employees for next year. The pay package includes a 5 percent raise for a starting firefighter and a raise of almost 22 percent for a starting police officer.

City Manager Mark Baldwin said Friday that the police department is constantly trying to fill vacancies, so "recruitment and retention" is a concern. The extra police raise is also a way to keep officers from switching to departments that pay more, he said.

The city's firefighters also get less than counterparts elsewhere, said Martinsburg Fire Department Lt. Scott Stroop, the picketers' spokesman.

On Thursday, the City Council approved boosting the pay of all city employees by one grade in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Each employee is guaranteed an extra $1,000 to $1,700, Baldwin said.

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City employees will also get regular merit pay raises, which range from zero to 4.5 percent, he said. The average is 2.5 percent.

On top of that, police officers will get more.

The council bumped police officers' pay up three more grades, for a total of four; police corporals' pay up two more grades, for a total of three; and police sergeants' pay up one more grade, for a total of two.

Next year, a starting Martinsburg police officer will receive $30,736, up from the current salary of $25,287.

Baldwin said the city's police department has nine vacancies out of 43 positions, excluding the chief. Another two officers are away on military leave and one is out on disability.

The fire department, which has 28 positions plus a chief, is at full staff, Baldwin said.

Stroop said next year's starting salary for a Martinsburg firefighter - $24,082, including the raise approved Thursday - is low when compared to $29,000 in Hagerstown and $29,527 in Winchester, Va.

He said it's "tough to swallow" that the City Council seems to favor the police.

"They see that Civil Service organization (as) worth more than this Civil Service organization," Stroop said. "We're both charged with protecting the citizens of Martinsburg."

Baldwin said a starting Martinsburg firefighter will also be guaranteed $2,045 in overtime pay on top of the base salary next year, making the actual salary $26,127.

A starting firefighter's salary this year is $22,936 plus $1,948 in required overtime, for a total of $24,884.

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, about two dozen Martinsburg firefighters continued their silent sidewalk march, more than three hours after it began. They held signs that said "We want a contract - Local 805" and "Unfair wages?" and "Equal pay & benefits - L-805."

Many wore blue union shirts. Baldwin said the city does not recognize a union for firefighters or for police.

The city has about 150 full- and part-time employees, Baldwin said.

The cost of the raise and benefits package for next year is an estimated $557,000.

Baldwin said about $278,000 will come from the city's general fund, about $56,000 from the water and sewer fund and about $3,500 from the parking fund.

About $219,000 to cover the additional grade raises for the police will come from the police levy.

Normally, the city spends about $225,000 on employee raises, Baldwin said.

Mayor George Karos said the council was addressing an immediate problem in the police department.

The firefighters "have a right to do what they want to do," but "acted hastily" in picketing, he said.

"They actually got almost double the (raise)" they've previously received, Karos said.

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