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Police, firefighters are worth more than they make

Johnson City Press • May 4, 2018 at 7:30 AM

Would you risk taking a bullet every day for $34,392 per year? How about charging into a burning house for $32,743?

Those are the minimum annual amounts Johnson City pays its police and firefighters.

Both Police Chief Karl Turner and Fire Chief Jim Stables made pitches last week to the City Commission for 4 percent increases for their employees in the next fiscal year.

As Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported, Turner wants a $491,334 increase to the Johnson City Police Department’s $11.7 million personnel budget to bring full-time staffing level up to 177 employees and award the raises. Stables wants a 3.2 percent increase to the Johnson City Fire Department’s $8.9 million budget to cover the increase for 130 employees. He also hopes to fund two new fire prevention positions.

As Johnson City’s chiefs have said in the past, recruiting and retaining police and firefighters to fill the city’s public safety ranks is no easy task. Turner told commissioners the JCPD’s vetting process is rigid. It has to be, given the responsibility assigned to police officers, safety concerns and stresses of the job. You can imagine the same is true of the fire department.

A 2017 indexed study conducted by the jobs site CareerCast ranked firefighting as the second-most stressful job in the country, behind only enlisted military service. Police work came in at No. 4 with airline pilots at No. 3.

Understandably, turnover in police work is out the roof. In 2015, we reported that one-third of the JCPD’s force had five or fewer years behind the badge. And of those 49 officers, about 26 percent had been with the department less than one year.

The average Johnson City firefighter (not including higher ranking officers) makes $36,530 per year. The average patrol officer fares a bit better at $41,532. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program says Washington County’s 2016 median household income was $46,316, which is more than $2,000 behind Tennessee’s median of $48,506.

Clearly, a frontline public safety employee, especially one who is the sole breadwinner in a family, is not getting rich. We ask these folks to put their lives on the line for us every day. It’s no wonder turnover is high.

We do not pay them in keeping with their value to society.

Of course, taxpayers pay these wages, and government must balance need with revenue. But given the turnover, recruitment deficit, risks and stresses, both the police and fire departments could use the boosts proposed by the chiefs.

Let’s hope the Commission can find room in the budget to accommodate the requests.

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