After a 3-1 vote during their meeting Tuesday night, commissioners are considering a potential millage rate of up to 10.268 mills for this coming year, with a final vote expected July 24. The potential rate, which would be up 0.321 mills from this year, would cover a 10-percent pay hike for deputies and firefighters, and a 2-percent increase for other county employees.
Commissioner Jason Nelms was absent.
Commissioner Harry Johnston cast the only vote against the increase, which he said “deeply troubled” him. According to Johnston, it would result in an increase of about 10 percent for the average homeowner because of changes in the county’s tax digest.
While Johnston said he saw both departments were hurting, he said he hasn’t seen a tax increase so drastic in his 14 years on the board. To vote for it would be like “abandoning everything I’ve stood for,” he said.
Other commissioners cautioned they were only considering a cap and still had time to think the rate over before the final vote.
The vote Tuesday was specifically to approve advertising a 5.890-mill cap for the general fund, which the county must advertise by law. The potential 10.268-mill rate also includes 0.819 mills for the parks bond and 3.3559 for fire service.
Commissioners Brian Poole and Ray Gunnin said action needed to be taken to keep the county’s deputies and firefighters from leaving at such a steady rate. The Sheriff’s Office has lost more than two dozen deputies so far this year, and the fire department is also seeing heavy turnovers, department officials have said.
“We’ve got to do something,” Poole said. “The county’s growing every day. Our No. 1 goal is public safety for the citizens. If that means we’re going to take some heat — I’m sure we will — I can explain it (to residents).”
Tuesday night’s vote came after two weeks of news and concern in the community Cherokee’s public safety workers weren’t getting paid as well as those in nearby departments.
Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Vic West started the discussion, when he explained at the commission’s last meeting deputies were leaving at an unprecedented rate. When the meeting ended, the commission was considering only a 2-percent pay increase for all county employees, including deputies and firefighters.
Fire Chief Tim Prather soon chimed in, telling the Tribune last week the fire department was losing 13 to 15 firefighters a year over money.
“I fear it’ll get worse,” Prather said. “It’s not rapidly increasing, but it will get worse if we don’t address something here soon. We have to conduct a recruit class every year just to overcome that loss. It’s a big loss.”
On Tuesday night, about a dozen fire department supporters, some of whom were Cherokee firefighters, turned out to the commission meeting to show their support for more competitive pay.
The support seemed to spring from a page created over the weekend on Facebook called “Back Cherokee,” which had encouraged people to come to the meeting in red shirts to stand with the fire department or blue shirts to stick up for the Sheriff’s Office. As of late Tuesday night, more than 800 people had liked the page on the social media website.
One of the red-clad spectators, Todd Mullins, who is a Cherokee firefighter, said he’s seen the department do more with less for years, and a change needs to come.
“It’s the difference between a Golden Corral steak and a Ruth’s Chris steak — you’re going to have to pay for what you got,” Mullins said after the meeting. “We’re tired of losing guys. Every one of us could leave right now if we got a job paying more money, but we love the county, we love the department, and we want to make it better and try to keep our guys here … People don’t realize how hard we work, how well-qualified we are, how well-trained we are.”
Prather says other departments seem to be realizing the quality of Cherokee’s firefighters, because the county has a culture of high training standards.
“I think we’re being recognized by other departments, that we do have one heck of a training program,” he said last week. “They can put them right to work.”
After the board’s vote, the fire chief said he was relieved and holding out hope the pay raises would be approved in the end.
“It’s going to help a bunch,” Prather said. “A lot of relief for me … if we can get it through.”
West was also pleased with the commission’s plans.
“I think it will send a message to our public safety officers, both fire and sheriff, that the commission is certainly aware of the situation,” the chief deputy said after the meeting. “I’m very pleased on behalf of the whole Sheriff’s Office. I have watched, over the last six years, 1,077 years of experience leave.”