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Why are some new Atlanta firefighters and policemen making more than veterans? 

Union leaders fight to fix public safety pay scale woes

BROKEN LADDER: Sgt. Stephen Borders (right) says issue contributes to alarming number of public safety employees leaving city.

Dustin Chambers

BROKEN LADDER: Sgt. Stephen Borders (right) says issue contributes to alarming number of public safety employees leaving city.

Since February 2004, Jason McEwen has helped extinguish fires, saved lives, and made the city safer as part of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. The lieutenant receives an approximately $43,600 annual salary as a commanding officer at Fire Station No. 1 in Castleberry Hill.

Sgt. Stephen Borders joined the department's ranks more than one year after McEwen. He currently makes around $48,900 each year. He is one of three sergeants stationed at Castleberry Hill who makes more than McEwen.

Borders, the fire department's union president, thinks that inconsistency must change. Over the past year, the city's police and fire unions have pressed Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council to help them resolve major problems with cops' and firefighters' pay scales. Their leaders argue that the changes would boost their department's morale and incentivize veteran law and laddermen to remain on staff. But they say city officials have dragged their feet on a process that should've only taken two or three months.

The problem, public safety employees say, is "salary compression." That's a technical way of describing what happens when a new hire gets paid more than a longtime employee in the same position at the same organization. The pay scale problem has always existed in some form but soared when city officials made annual pay bumps optional for public safety employees during the Great Recession.

At the time, officials said the cost-cutting move was necessary to balance the city's books. The change eventually led to supervisors getting paid less than their underlings. Meanwhile, some new cops and firefighters hired from other cities are regularly making more than department veterans with the same levels of experience. Ken Allen, Atlanta's police union president, says the issue has recently contributed to a disproportionate number of APD officers voluntary leaving the force either for new jobs or positions in the suburbs.

Both union reps think the departments' pay scales should be corrected now that the city's finances are in better shape. In addition, they argue, the move could save the city millions of dollars down the road. Over the past decade, around 1,000 police officers have left the force. Allen projects the estimated replacement costs for those employees — it costs around $85,000 to fully train new recruits, he says — could top $85 million for that same period.

Once councilmembers return from recess on April 21, they're expected to continue salary compression talks. Councilman Alex Wan, who chairs the body's finance-executive committee, thinks city officials and unions might have to compromise on a figure that's "responsible, sustainable, and make sense." Council has currently set aside $500,000 for both departments. But union reps say it will actually cost more than $5.3 million — $3.3 million for police and $2 million for firefighters — to fix the issue.

Meanwhile, Reed staffers are working with union leaders to, Allen says, "work out the kinks." But they haven't agreed yet on how much the city should spend. (As CL went to press, Reed's office did not respond to requests for comment.)

By fixing the problem now, the union leaders think the city could save millions of dollars — and coax more veteran employees like McEwen to keep making Atlanta, rather than other cities or counties, safe.

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