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Erlanger Fire Chief Says Department Can't Compete with Surrounding Cities

"We are at a critical point at the fire department," Erlanger Fire Chief Todd Whitaker told city council Tuesday night. "I have begged for more money. I am not asking to be the highest-paid fire department, but we have the second-most runs in the county. It would take $200,000 to get everyone to the median point in salaries. I have to look out for the betterment of the guys, and these are my guys. I didn't know where else to turn."
Whitaker's remarks to council follow last month's blockbuster announcement that the Cities of Erlanger and Ft. Mitchell are looking to share fire department employees in an effort to improve services.
Erlanger, Whitaker said, is struggling to retain employees in the fire department because other departments can offer more pay. "There is a small city in Campbell County that pays up to $10,000 more a year," Whitaker stated. "I don't understand. We have good men. Sure, we've got some issues. Sharing services is not a million dollar savings, but we have to do something."
That city is Wilder, which recently advertised for a starting position of Firefighter/EMT at up to $10,000 more than Erlanger.
"The career of firefighter/EMT has fallen out of favor to the extent that there aren't enough people to go around," explained Whitaker. "So we are all cannibalizing each other, trying to get enough good people to fill the roster. The word is out that Erlanger trains their people well, so we are like a farm team for other cities to draw from. We have so many dedicated people here, I want to reward them for staying, but the truth is, the disparity in salaries draws them to leave, and I can't blame them."
Whitaker went on to say that the problem is nationwide. He went to a convention in San Antonio, where one of the top problems faced by departments, according to those in attendance as relayed by Whitaker, was the recruitment and retention of good people.
"I have talked to Chief Gary Auffart of Ft. Mitchell because we already have some full-time people who want to work part time for Ft. Mitchell," Whitaker said. "This isn't going to make us a fortune or anything, but it allows us to cover shifts. It is not a cure-all, but we have to stop the bleeding, and this is a possible stopgap to help the situation."
Whitaker has been chief almost three years, and he knew the situation was not good for pay scales, but the city gave a 1.7 percent raise last year and a 2 percent increase the year before. He doesn't blame the city, because he says it is its job to balance the budget, which includes more than a fire department. He said he is a good soldier, but he also has to look out for his guys because he is a leader, too. Whitaker said the situation is detrimental to the city, and while the fire department will continue to exist, the lack of personnel could affect many things. He stops short of saying that the safety of the people could be at stake.
"Our citizens will always be served to the utmost," he stated with certainty. "It is just not letting us progress like we want to."
The police department apparently isn't faring much better.
"We need more money, pure and simple," said Councilwoman Patty Suedkamp. "The total amount to get the lowest paid 24 patrolmen closer to the median range for salary is $90,000. Our budget for standard salary is $41,000. In comparison, Florence's budget is almost $46,000. (Other cities) are recruiting our officers out of school."
Police Chief Tony Wilson said new recruits sign a three-year contract, and the first year is a wash for training, but by the third year, they are looking for more money. He explained that other departments are hiring Erlanger's recruits out of training classes, and said the $90,000 is exclusively to get the 24 patrolmen closer to the median salary, which gives the city a chance to hold on to those that it spends money to hire and train.
"It isn't critical at this point," said Suedkamp. "But we are looking ahead to the future."
Later, in his report, City Administrator Marc Fields acknowledged that there is a problem and the fire department is in crisis mode.
"We haven't put significant money into the budget to address this," said Fields. "Just to verify, those are all true facts. Our goal has always been to get the salaries to midpoint. Our economic development forecast is very good, so we hope to be prepared enough by January to have a plan. We are addressing this now, or it will continue to come back to haunt us."
Chief Whitaker said he was hopeful after the meeting, though he didn't like airing the situation in public.
"I will go down any road I have to to get what I need for my guys," he stated. "This city has so many positives, so I am very hopeful we can get to the next step."
Other notes:
Council voted unanimously to lower taxes for the second straight year, setting the rates on real property at $.3370 per each $100 of value, and on all personal property other than motor vehicles at the rate of $.5890 per each $100 of value. There is a 2 percent discount if the taxes are paid during October.
Council also passed the second reading of a ordinance amending certain requirements governing home occupations. The main changes are that no more than one person not residing in the home shall be permitted to be engaged in the operation of the approved home occupation, the selling of any commodity shall be ancillary to the home occupation and done primarily through the internet or telecommunication, there will be no signs other than those specified in the ordinance, and all home occupations have to be properly licensed and certified.
A resolution passed allowing Dave Hahn, as the city Economic Director to apply for a zoning map amendment for the properties located at 645 Erlanger Road and 1-A Houston road from R-3/HC to HC-2.
A municipal order passed which authorizes Mayor Tyson Hermes to execute a contract with Precision Concrete Cutting for a sidewalk study consisting of two phases for approximately 32 miles of sidewalk, primarily on the west side of Erlanger in the older section, and the Stevenson Road corridor.
Council also voted to allow street lights in the new Drees subdivision to be known as the Enclave. A map showed where the lights will be located, and since the wiring in the subdivision is all underground, a decision had to be made now.
Bids have been received and opened for the work on Erlanger Road. JPS Construction came in with the lowest bid at $267,492 and at the recommendation of City Engineer Jim Viox, Council voted to accept the bid.
Mayor Hermes declared September to be Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and presented a plaque to Nick and Brittany Smith, who came to the meeting with their daughter Brooklyn, who is fighting Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a severe form of childhood cancer. Mayor Hermes also presented Brooklyn with a key to the city.
Mark Young, from the west side of Covington, came to the meeting to sing the praises of chickens in the city, and to say that even though he was against them at first, it has been a catalyst for development, and he would like the city to reconsider the idea of allowing fowl.
Marcus Estenfelder came to the meeting again to make council aware of the situation on Hallam Avenue where people are simply not stopping at the stop signs. He said one of his own children was almost hit by a car in July, and the attitude of the drivers ignoring the stop signs is totally disrespectful and uncaring. Police have stepped up patrols but the problem is ongoing. He also brought up the intersection of Perimeter Drive and Stevenson Road where cars that are in the dip on Stevenson are almost impossible to see. Estenfelder suggested possibly making the small section of Perimeter one way, and Mayor Hermes said it was a good suggestion.
Another citizen, T.D. Dierker, came up to commend council on lowering taxes, and to salute the whole government on trying to fix the problem with the police and fire while still lowering the tax rate.
At the beginning of the meeting, Todd Brendel took the oath of office for Assistant Police Chief, Kyle Rader took the oath for Police Lieutenant and Brandon Marksberry took the oath for Police Sergeant.
SRO Scott Abney received a pin for 35 years of service, Lisa Hume received a pin for 20 years of service, and Daniel Disibio and Shawn Zitt both received 5 year service pins.
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
Slideshow Images & Captions: 
odd Brendel takes the oath for Assistant police chief, Kyle Rader takes the oath for Police Lieutenant, and Brandon Marksberry takes the oath for Police Sergeant, and are congratulated.