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Ky. city officials look at increasing emergency services costs

“It’s never been more expensive to run an emergency service department,” Somerset Mayor Alan Keck told council members



By Carla Slavey
Commonwealth Journal

SOMERSET, Ky. — How much is it costing governments like the City of Somerset to operate emergency services? Apparently, more than it used to.

At Tuesday’s budget workshop, Mayor Alan Keck gave a by-the-numbers account of how the past few years — with inflation, supply chain problems and COVID-related concerns — have affected the cost of keeping citizens safe.

Since Keck took over as mayor in 2019, he said new expenses for the fire, EMS and police departments have gone up $5.5 million each year.

Those costs have not been offset by the city’s revenue streams, and Keck pointed out municipalities were limited in what they can do to raise more money. For most cities, it’s usually utilities that foot the bill. But one of the city’s historical money-makers, natural gas, hasn’t been as profitable in recent years because of the volatility in the prices, Keck said.

“Probably the toughest challenge we’re faced with, now and into the future, is how to continue to properly and adequately fund emergency services,” Keck said. “Where’s the money going to come from? ... It’s never been more expensive to run an emergency service department.”

Keck urged council members to keep the expenses in mind as they looked over the budgets for those three departments. While it is not an immediate concern for the city — emergency services won’t be running out of money in the next couple of years — Keck said there was still a need to prepare for the city’s future and make it sustainable long after the current councilors and department chiefs are gone.

“I will be bringing things to the table next month that I think will maybe stop the bleeding and hopefully put us in a position where we can be fully staffed,” Keck said but offered no specifics at this time.

Meanwhile, the continued health and well-being of those who work in emergency services popped up in several discussions. One of the biggest costs to the city is the insurance premiums paid for those that are considered to be “hazardous duty” — which covers emergency responders.

Keck told the council, “We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize somebody who’s been a long-term hazardous duty employee to not continue to get that. But what we do need to do is explore avenues. It’s almost 50 cents on the dollar [additional costs]. If you make $40,000, it costs the city an extra $20,000 for that retirement, versus non-hazardous.”

Then, there is the cost of keeping current employees mentally healthy — for both the city and the employees themselves.

Somerset Police Chief William Hunt advocated at the budget workshop for the council to consider a change to the assistance program that might cost the city a bit more upfront, but might save them in terms of keeping a trained employee active.

The changes would affect how members of all emergency services — not just police — receive help for a traumatic event.

“Right now, our employees get three visits with a therapist if they so choose,” Hunt said. “After those three visits, they have to pay a co-pay. That co-pay’s $50.”

In dealing with cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Hunt said those therapists suggest 10 to 12 sessions.

“What we have seen is if an employee wants help and wants to see a therapist when they get to visit number four or number five, they quit going because they can’t afford to sustain that extra payment on a budget they’ve got now.”

The extra sessions require the employee to pay $400 to $500 out of pocket to receive care.

Many of those employees are on a tight budget, Hunt said.

That could be seen in previous discussions with Somerset Fire Chief Bengie Howard and Somerset-Pulaski EMS Chief Steven Eubank over pay rates.

Eubank said EMS is currently down around eight full-time employees, noting that people working at a fast food restaurant could expect a starting pay rate of $14 to $15 an hour.

Currently, the starting rate for an EMT is $12.50, he said.

The same could be said for firefighters, where Howard and Keck discussed the amount paid for such a dangerous profession.

With Keck noting that someone could start at other jobs at $13 or $14 per hour, “Are you going to go risk your life for $14, $15?”

In terms of paying for mental health treatment, Hunt said he had been in contact with the city’s insurance agent to discuss changing the city’s policy to allow for up to 12 visits with a therapist without the employee having to pay a co-pay.

Not only is it the “right thing to do” for them, Hunt said, it would be a smart thing financially. If that employee doesn’t receive the proper health, and instead decides to get out of the job that is causing their mental health to deteriorate, the city would lose “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in that employee.

Hunt said he believes the additional costs to the city would be small, and urged council members to consider a change to the policy should it come before them in the future.

Hunt had another request for the council — one that would help his department recruit and retain police officers, he said.

That request was to give a $1 per hour raise to all SPD officers.

Hunt had a reason for asking for that specific amount. Locally, law enforcement entities are competing for the same, limited pool of those who want to be police officers, he said.

While its department is smaller, the Science Hill Police Department is currently offering a higher starting pay than SPD, Hunt said.

Plus, in a recent Fiscal Court meeting, Pulaski County Sheriff Bobby Jones asked county officials for a $ 1.33-an-hour rate increase for his deputies.

“From what I hear, they’re probably going to get it,” Hunt said. “If they get that raise, they are going to surpass us in what we pay our officers.”

Raising SPD pay by $1 would keep them “just barely” ahead of PCSO’s rate, he said.

“If we don’t do anything to stay competitive and stay ahead, it’s going to make it that much more challenging for us as a department,” Hunt said.

When asked by council members, Hunt said his office currently had 42 officers. They have four positions to fill and just hired four new officers — which will take around a year and a half of training to get them on the street, he said.

In contrast, Hunt said he believed PCSO deputies numbered in the “upper 30s.”

According to Keck’s figures, the raise for SPD would cost the city approximate $150,000 per year.

As far as firefighters, Chief Howard and Chief Financial Officer Mike Broyles said the department would be receiving nine new firefighter positions through the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant.

SFD would also be getting a new light service vehicle that will be used on EMS assistance runs.

Howard said EMS runs were the largest percentage of calls the department gets, and sending out the smaller vehicle would save wear and tear on the larger fire trucks.

“I got a pretty good deal on this because the body was donated to us by the (Somerset-Pulaski) Special Response Team, and then we bought the chassis,” Howard said. Most of the work on it is being done by Pulaski County Government mechanics.

EMS is also expecting a couple of new vehicles, Chief Eubank said, but Mayor Keck pointed out that they have been on order for two years. Supply chain issues have caused the delay, he said.

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