Taxing and training: Chiefs say fire tax raised public safety morale, made city safer, better equipped

Sunday, February 19, 2006
The Cape Girardeau Fire Department trained for the first time on the new "Jaws Of Life" equipment recently purchased with revenue from the city's new fire sales tax. The new equipment performs better and is lighter and easier to handle. (Diane L. Wilson)

Firefighters and police officers are better equipped, better paid and happier following the first full year of Cape Girardeau's sales tax for public safety, the chiefs of the fire and police departments said.

New equipment for the Cape Girardeau Fire Department includes a new aerial ladder truck, 49 new breathing units and 42 sets of protective clothing.

The breathing units have extra features that allow firefighters to share their oxygen tanks and that send a signal to department scene commanders when firefighters stop moving for 60 seconds.

"The upgrading of apparatus and safety equipment has increased our effectiveness, efficiency level, our level of safety and reliability," fire chief Rick Ennis said. "Obviously that has had a tremendous positive impact on the morale of the firefighters."

For the police department, new purchases in 2005 included 20 new patrol cars and Tasers that give officers an option short of using deadly force to subdue a suspect.

The biggest impact for police, however, was a pay increase that averaged 13.4 percent, chief Carl Kinnison said. Department turnover in 2005 fell to 6.7 percent, compared to 12.5 to 14.1 percent in the previous three years, he said.

"I heard with some regularity that at the time of the fire sales tax, people were waiting to see whether it passed or not," Kinnison said. "They certainly indicated they were planning on seeking other employment" if the tax failed.

The quarter-cent sales tax, projected to raise $2 million a year, fell just short of that amount in 2005, Cape Girardeau finance director John Richbourg said. Expected growth in sales within the city should push the figure above $2 million in 2006.

Passed in June 2004, the tax is officially designated under state law for the fire department. But city officials sold it as a tax that would help all public safety functions of city government by allowing them to shift some revenue to the police department.

New fire station

In addition to equipment and pay raises, the tax is paying for construction of a new fire station on North Sprigg Street and allowing the city to contemplate expansion plans for the police station.

When first constructed, the police station was designed for 45 officers. Today, with more than 70 police officers, the station can only offer cramped quarters, Kinnison said.

The city purchased houses on Frederick Street immediately east of the Sprigg Street police station with hopes of renovating them for office space. That proved prohibitively expensive, so the department plans to place a modular office building behind the current station, he said.

"We have some serious space issues," Kinnison said.

The average pay increase for police and firefighters, 13.4 percent, doesn't tell the complete story. The starting salary for patrolmen and firefighters -- the lowest ranking professionals in each department -- rose by 25.3 and 29.8 percent, respectively. And the top pay for jobs in each department was increased by 34.8 to 49.6 percent.

Those increases have not only helped both departments retain their employees, the chiefs said, they have made it easier to recruit new officers.

Help in hiring

The police department prefers to hire officers who already have the required training and, when possible, to hire officers with police experience, Kinnison said.

From an average of approximately 40 applicants for each opening in the department, there are now as many as 90 people seeking each police job, he said.

While 40 people seeking one job may sound like plenty, Kinnison said, it wasn't enough. Prior to the tax, he said, "we did three back-to-back-to-back application processes just to get enough qualified applicants."

The quality of applicants has gone up along with the quantity, Kinnison said. "Most people would agree that the more people who apply the better chance you have of having outstanding applicants in that pool."

Losing experienced officers can diminish the effectiveness of any police department, Kinnison said. When an officer changes jobs, that means the money spent training and equipping him or her is lost and additional time and money must be spent training and equipping replacements.

"Usually, before someone feels comfortable in this job, they need two or three years at a minimum," Kinnison said. "When you have had someone working the streets two or three years who is confident and good at what they are doing, then you are losing people all the time."

There will always be turnover in any department, Kinnison said. Policing is stressful, and most departments count on a 10 percent annual turnover.

At the fire department, the extra money paid for new firefighters as well as higher salaries, Ennis said. Now, instead of 17 firefighters working at any given time, the department has 18.

The raises aren't making any firefighter rich, Ennis said. The department is, however, comparable to regional cities of similar size.

Turnover of jobs in the fire department wasn't as critical an issue as it was for the police department, Ennis said. While the department lost more firefighters each year than it would have liked, he said, there was never a lack of applicants.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to the majority of firefighters who stayed here because they like Cape Girardeau," Ennis said. "Even though it was one of the lowest paid in the region, they still chose to stay here and wait it out until times got better. Those are the ones who drive this fire department, and I am glad we are able to reward them now."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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