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Public safety pay issue fills commissioners’ boardroom to capacity

March 27, 2019 GMT

At Tuesday night’s Cobb County commissioners meeting, public safety took center stage. And almost the entire audience seating. Even overflow seating was brimming with those in and out of uniform, and those in support of police, fire, EMS and other services.

The over-capacity crowd was the culmination of community outcry over pay rates for safety personnel that began earlier this year by a few speakers during the public comment portion of several Cobb commission meetings, but had seen a greater push during town halls led by Chairman Mike Boyce, most of which had featured east Cobb resident Susan Hampton handing out fliers to attendees highlighting Cobb Police officer salaries “well below” competing departments in metro Atlanta.

But as Cobb County firefighters filled many of the front rows of the audience seating in the boardroom, a former county firefighter told commissioners he resigned from the department last month after 10 years on the force, with pay the primary issue behind his decision.

“I had to make the difficult decision to leave the job that I love because that was what was best for my family. Now, in my new career, I’m able to work less hours, make a higher paycheck and have a better retirement,” said Matt Babcock, who still resides in Cobb with his family. “Cobb firefighters are leaving for other departments or private-sector jobs with better pay and benefits — these factors, along with a long lead time to hire and train new firefighters, has resulted in about 80 open field positions.”

That shortage, Babcock said, has often led to fire engines being manned by three firefighters instead of at least four when fully staffed. That one extra firefighter, he added, makes a difference.

“When responding to a house fire, the four personnel on a fully staffed engine are able to divide into teams of two and accomplish two tasks at the same time. For example, they can simultaneously perform a search for trapped victims while also pointing a hoseline in extinguishing the fire,” Babcock said. On the other hand, a minimally staffed engine with only three people can’t send in one person alone, so the three-person crew has to choose between performing a search for victims while the fire grows, or delaying the search until the fire has been put out.”

The pay issue was alluded to in the first public presentation of the night after Sam Heaton, the county’s director of public safety, was given a proclamation ahead of his impending retirement Friday. He has worked for the county for more than 33 years, including as public safety director since 2014 following the resignation of Jack Forsythe, who had been selected as director a year prior.

“Unfortunately today in public safety, it’s an open market,” Heaton said in his remarks Thursday after receiving the proclamation.

Earlier this month, Heaton told the MDJ the county’s police department has about 625 sworn officers in its employment — 80 short of the 705 officers allotted under the department’s budget. Such a gap, he said, has been typical in his five years as director.

As previously reported by the MDJ, Forsythe submitted a blistering letter of resignation in his departure, writing to then-county manager David Hankerson that Cobb had “suffered from a lack of sufficient funding and resources to properly sustain the appropriate level of personnel, facilities and equipment needed to provide an adequate level of protection for the citizens … ”

Forsythe’s concerns were alluded to by Kim Peace Hill, co-founder of Blue Thanksgiving, an effort to feed Cobb police officers on duty during the holiday.

“It has been five years and we’re still talking about this need for improvement,” Hill said.

Though public safety proponents dominated the public comments during Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners did not address their remarks in the first two hours of the meeting, which ended around press time.