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May
29
2024
Miami Township

At an April 15 Miami Township Trustees meeting, trustees (from left) Marilan Moir, Don Hollister and Chris Mucher wrestled with maintaining a balanced operations budget for the township while, at the same time, providing for its employees in the interest of retention. Of particular concern, Interim Fire Chief Dennis Powell (right) told trustees, is retaining his team of firefighters and providing them with employee benefits. (Video still)

Miami Township Trustees wrestle with operations costs, firefighter retention

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The Miami Township Trustees and Miami Township Fire-Rescue, or MTFR, are currently facing a question that fire-rescue agencies in small communities across the state are continuously considering: What’s the best way to balance operations costs with the need for adequate shift staffing and long-term employee retention?

It’s not the first time Miami Township has asked the question, but this year, it was precipitated by a resolution proposed by Interim Chief Dennis Powell at an April 1 meeting of the trustees. As previously reported by the News, the proposed resolution, if approved by trustees, would reclassify three part-time employees as full-time, qualifying them for retirement pensions.

Powell made the case at the meeting that additional full-time, pensioned positions would likely reduce the amount of overtime employees would incur, as full-time staff must meet a higher baseline of hours before they enter overtime pay. ​​At the same time, he said, additional retirement pensions would be an incentive to keep employees on MTFR’s roster. 

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Ohio law requires local governments to contribute 24% of a full-time firefighter’s salary to the ​​Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund, or OP&F, annually; pension-eligible employees are responsible for contributing 12% of their annual wages to the fund. The majority of current part-time MTFR employees are trained as both firefighters and EMTs/paramedics, and would be eligible for pensions if moved into full-time shifts; the OP&F requires firefighters to work shifts of 24 hours on and 48 hours off to qualify as full-time.

MTFR currently employs four full-time, pensioned staff, and its roster also includes firefighters who work 36 hours weekly and receive benefits, but who are not eligible for pension.

Noting the additional cost of three additional pensions, Trustee Marilan Moir questioned at the meeting whether the Township’s annual operations budget could sustain the expense, as MTFR plans to acquire a lease-purchase fire engine in the coming years.

After serving at the local level as MTFR fire chief for 29 years, Colin Altman is now president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association, or OFCA. He spoke with the News to offer both a local and state perspective on the Township’s struggles.

Altman said that adequately compensating and retaining employees on a sometimes precarious budget is a widespread Ohio issue, particularly in small towns. Fire-rescue agencies can receive state and federal funding, but rely mostly on real estate tax revenue to operate. As a result, municipalities with a smaller tax base — like Miami Township — are finding it increasingly difficult to retain employees.

“It’s hard for a small community to pay enough to hold people,” Altman said, adding that small-town firefighters often transfer to a larger municipality with greater resources.

“A lateral transfer allows someone at Miami Township, for example, who meets job requirements [in another municipality] to go to another job and almost double their salary without losing seniority or PTO benefits, so it’s a really good deal for them,” he said. “Realistically, there’s no way any of the small communities in Ohio can counter that type of thing.” 

Altman noted that, during his time at the helm of MTFR, small-town fire-rescue agencies underwent a shift from volunteer-heavy operations to mostly paid positions. MTFR and other Ohio agencies, he said, initially responded to the changing trend by staffing each shift — which requires a minimum of two employees, as two are needed to operate an ambulance or fire engine — with part-time employees.

But it can be difficult, Altman said, to schedule enough part-time employees for each shift in small municipalities; the volume of emergency calls has continued to grow every year in Miami Township, and more than the minimum of two employees per shift is often required as simultaneous emergency calls come in. If there aren’t enough employees on shift to respond to multiple calls, MTFR must request mutual aid from other municipalities, which can result in increased response times.

At the same time, ongoing state and national cost-of-living rises mean part-time work is untenable for many employees, Altman said, making part-time staffing an increasingly unlikely long-term solution for many small-town fire-rescue agencies.

“The joke was always that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a firefighter or paramedic in Ohio,” Altman said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Altman added that, over the last five years, fire chiefs statewide have identified in their staffing models that adding a second full-time firefighter to each shift has aided in employee retention.

“It has made issues that I would grapple with — and now [Interim Chief Powell] is grappling with — of staffing and how  to maintain that adequate number of people per shift a lot easier,” he said.

The proposed resolution to add three pensioned employees was discussed again at an April 15 regular meeting of the trustees — this time in executive session, for about 51 minutes.

After returning to public session, Trustee Chair Don Hollister recommended that trustees wait until the Township receives the results of an Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association organizational evaluation before moving ahead with a “more detailed personnel retention and team development” plan.

In a follow-up call with the News, Hollister clarified that the Township contracted with the OFCA last fall to complete the evaluation, which assesses a fire-rescue department’s operation efficiency and its compliance with regulations and best practices.

“We’ve been going through a lot of changes with the shift from being volunteer to more professional, and statewide there have been similar patterns, so we wanted to get an outside picture of where we’re at,” Hollister said of the assessment.

He added that the results of the evaluation have been delayed, with the OFCA having received an influx of professional consultation requests from other townships in the state — townships that, he said, are likely looking for some of the same answers Miami Township is seeking.

At the April 15 meeting, Moir repeated her concern over the number of additional pensions being proposed in the resolution, and suggested that trustees instead offer $1 per hour raises and $1,000 cash bonuses to current non-pension employees who commit to stay with MTFR for the next year until it’s clear MTFR’s budget can sustain additional pensions.

“I think [MTFR employees] are frustrated and they need some immediate relief, but I can’t see going headlong into [the proposed resolution],” she said.

In a follow-up email with the News, Moir said that a 2022 operations levy passed by local residents averted a “financial crisis” for the Township, and that the Township and MTFR worked in 2023 to make “staffing and administrative changes that decreased staffing costs.”

“2024 has been the first stable year in a while. We are in good shape,” Moir wrote. “Now we need careful analysis and planning for growth, not spontaneous, ambitious expansion.”

Moir added that she believes the Township has “not done the proper budgetary analysis” to determine whether or not it could sustain three additional pensions. She went on to say she believes it’s possible, but “highly unlikely” the awaited OFCA organization evaluation will offer the Township more clarity on the proposed resolution.

Despite her reservations over the costs associated with the proposed additional pensions, Moir acknowledged that employee retention remains an issue within MTFR, noting — as Altman did — that “larger, unionized departments such as Springfield and Beavercreek are hiring and can afford to pay more,” in addition to offering more full-time positions.

Moir echoed statements made by Interim Chief Powell during the April 15 meeting. Powell said he believed time was of the essence in making a decision about the additional pensions, as there are six MTFR employees who “are actively looking at leaving.”

“There are nine fire departments in our area that are actively hiring full-time, pension people,” Powell said. “If I lose those six people, I do not replace those six people. That’s the board’s decision, but understand if we lose all those people, that was your decision.”

At the conclusion of the April 15 meeting, Hollister said the trustees would not vote on the proposed resolution that night, but would continue to discuss the matter in the future.

“This is a vital, burning issue, but we’re not going to take any action tonight,” Hollister said.

The April 15 meeting may be viewed in full online at youtube.com/@YellowSpringsCommunityAccess. The News will continue to follow this story as it develops.

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