Boone County Fire District to vote on salaries

Tuesday, July 15, 2008 | 9:21 p.m. CDT; updated 4:40 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The Boone County Fire Protection District’s board of directors is set to decide the salary ranges for all paid staff positions — including Fire Chief Steve Paulsell — at a special board meeting Thursday.

The vote comes three months after a paid consultant, Bob Scribner, submitted a report analyzing the salaries of the fire district’s paid administrative staffs. Salaries have been an issue since John Gordon joined the board in 2004 and heard complaints from fire district volunteers that salaries of some staff were inflated.

The salary review committee is led by board member Shelly Dometrorch, who made salaries the centerpiece of her 2005 campaign for the board. The committee, which first met in November 2007, conducted a review of each staff position and salary in the fire district compared with seven similar fire departments around the country.

The committee then grouped staff positions and gave each a salary bracket with position-specific minimum and maximum salary recommendations.

“We try to discuss this in terms of the position, not who is in the position,” Dometrorch said.

At the last board meeting, the board accepted the salary brackets proposed by the salary review committee. The board is set to decide Thursday on the specific dollar amounts for each bracket and what to do about employees with salaries outside of the recommended range. The committee recommended staff members below the minimum range receive a raise to the base salary for their respective bracket.

Paulsell’s salary is one of two that exceed the maximum amount recommended by the salary review commission, Dometrorch said. His salary exceeds the maximum by about $25,000. Mechanic Jim Jennings makes $700 more than his salary bracket allows.

In 1994, Paulsell was making $75,582.94. Ten years later, he was making more than $100,000 more. The board will decide if Paulsell’s $177,058.44 salary should be frozen or reduced to the top of the bracket for his position. The board could also opt to hire Paulsell as a contractor at a salary outside the range set by the consultant, or do nothing.

By comparison, the fire chief of the Lincoln, Neb., Fire Department cannot make more than $129,452 annually. The Lincoln department operates 14 fire stations staffed by 276 career firefighters and serves about 250,000 citizens. The Lincoln department also has a FEMA-funded urban search and rescue task force similar to Boone County’s Missouri Task Force One.

The Boone County Fire District operates 14 fire stations with about 300 volunteers and 14 paid staff serving about 50,000 citizens.

City of Columbia Fire Chief Bill Markgraf makes $99,114 annually.

City Manager Bill Watkins makes $147,784.

But one of the board’s two newest members, John Williamson, said that he was “very much opposed” to lowering Paulsell’s salary by $25,000.

Williamson said, hypothetically, that “if at some point the chief is gonna retire, we probably wouldn’t offer this salary to someone new.”

“Steve has had a very long and very productive career as the chief,” Williamson said of Paulsell, who has been with the district over 30 years.

Scribner said Tuesday he recommends the board accept the grid, but he declined to say how salaries that exceed the maximum for their range should be adjusted.

Phone calls to Steve Paulsell were not returned.

The Chief's Contract

The fire chief’s March 24, 2005, contract stipulates that if the fire district reduces his salary or benefits more than an across-the-board reduction of all employees, Paulsell could choose to be terminated and receive his severance package.

Paulsell’s severance pay would be a lump sum cash payment equal to six months’ salary at the time of termination as well as payment for all accrued vacation time, which stood at 42 weeks as of 2005. The total severance package was estimated by board member Dometrorch to total around $400,000.

However, Paulsell’s contract has not been recognized by the board since December 2007.

“The contract is not enforced at this time. A, it was unenforceable and B, it has expired,” board Chairman John Gordon said.

Gordon said the three-person board hired a St. Louis attorney to review the contract. “He felt, as other attorneys have said, it is unenforceable,” Gordon said.

“The contract was never voted on by the board and was signed by the chairman (Willis Smith) at the time,” Gordon said Monday. “It was not fair to the taxpayers of Boone County.”

Board meeting minutes from 2005 indicate no discussion or vote were held to allow President Smith to sign the March 24 contract. Gordon said that’s one legitimate reason for invalidating the contract but added: “There are other reasons.”

Smith’s and Paulsell’s are the only signatures on the 1994 and 2005 contracts. District legal counsel Jeff Parshall’s signature line remains blank.

The special open meeting will be Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the fire district headquarters at 2201 I-70 Drive NW.

Gordon said Tuesday that he is attempting to set up a closed meeting before the scheduled open meeting, if the board members’ schedule’s allow. The purpose of the meeting would be “to discuss a specific personnel problem,” Gordon said.

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