Tupelo Firefighters' pay in limbo

TUPELO – A plan to save city taxpayers $268,000 a year irked some elected leaders Thursday who claimed it’d penalize hardworking firefighters.
Responding to budgetary pressure, Fire Chief Thomas Walker revealed a new work schedule to eliminate hundreds of hours of overtime accrued annually by his 84-member emergency services personnel.
Walker proposed moving his staff from 14-day work periods to 19-day work periods and requiring firefighters to take one unpaid holiday every third period. The system would provide the same level of fire and emergency protection to Tupelo residents and businesses without triggering overtime pay.
But several City Council members criticized the plan for reducing firefighters’ paychecks.
“Several fireman told me that … (overtime pay) can be as much as $200 to $300 per pay period. That’s a significant decrease,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell, speaking at a council work session to draft the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1 and must be complete by Sept. 15.
Ward 7 Councilman Mike Bryan argued that department employees have come to expect overtime pay as part of their base salaries because they have been earning it consistently throughout the years. He said if the city reduces overtime pay, then it needs to raise firefighters’ base salaries to cover the difference.
That plan, however, won’t solve the department’s budget woes.
“You talked about morale; it was hard to stand up before 84 people and discuss cutting overtime,” Thomas said. “But it’s not nearly as hard as sitting down in my office with one person and saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the money to pay you. I’ve got to let you go.'”
The council bears ultimate responsibility for adopting the city budget – including that of the fire department. It was unclear at the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting how the council would handle the overtime proposal, but two members suggested compromise.
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington and council President Fred Pitts said the overtime cuts could happen gradually instead of all at once, thus lessening the blow to individual workers.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal