Before John Gordon Sr. won a seat on the Boone County Fire Protection District’s governing board in 2004, he went around to the department’s volunteers and employees and asked them what they wanted to see changed. He heard two things repeatedly.
There were complaints about Fire Chief Steve Paulsell’s workplace romance with Assistant Chief Sharon Curry.
“But the main one was regarding the high salaries of some fire district personnel,” he recalled.
Five fire district chiefs, including Assistant Chiefs Curry and Jeff Scott and Deputy Chief Scott Olsen, make more than $90,000 a year. Paulsell’s yearly salary is $177,058. That’s $35,000 more than the Columbia city manager makes.
Several employees are provided vehicles and, in addition, Paulsell receives a whole life insurance policy and a 10 percent annuity.
At a closed meeting Monday night, the fire district adopted a new “step-up” salary policy, which allows employees who fill vacated positions to receive a comparable salary.
Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp’s $49,192 salary was adjusted in line with the new policy. He will make $63,500 on a “temporary basis,” said the fire district’s board chairman, John Gordon Sr., while Assistant Chief Ken Hines is away on military leave with the U.S. Coast Guard. Hines makes $95,874 a year.
District salaries are now getting scrutiny. Robert Scribner, of the Columbia business consulting firm Executive Advantage, said he expects to get back this week some of the nine salary surveys he sent out to compare the Boone County fire district salaries with other departments nationwide. The optional surveys are due back Monday.
Scribner said he hopes to have a full report completed for the governing board by February and estimated the full cost of the study to be between $1,000 and $2,000.
The surveys went out to similar-size fire protection districts, including the North Metro Fire Protection District in Northglenn, Colo.; Spokane County Fire District 9 in Mead, Wash.; the Fresno County Fire Protection District in Sanger, Calif.; and the Texas Commission on Fire Protection in Austin, Texas.
“We’re trying to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” Scribner said. “But, one of the aggravating things related to pay is that a lot of upper-level city fire district personnel don’t get up in the middle of the night when there’s a major fire or incident like our fire people do. There’s differences.”
The Missourian did some checking on its own and a made a few comparisons. Here’s what we found:
The City of Columbia’s fire chief, Bill Markgraf, makes $96,683 a year. The Columbia Fire Department has 135 paid employees and a $12.7 million yearly budget.
Two of the fire districts that Scribner is using for his salary study have fire chiefs who make considerably less than Paulsell. Spokane, Wash., Fire District 9 Chief Robert I. Anderson makes $122,227 a year, and North Metro Fire District Chief John O’Hayre, who has been chief in Northglenn, Colo., for 22 years, makes $122,839 a year.
The maximum salary allowed in the county budget for the fire chief of the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department, is $166,435. It houses its own federally funded urban search and rescue squad and has more than 1,300 uniformed positions and 350 operational volunteers.
Paulsell’s former No. 2, Rob Brown, fire chief of the Stafford County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department, makes $115,000 at a department with roughly 350 volunteers and 100 paid career staff. It is the maximum amount Brown could make at the county fire department. He made only $5,000 less — $110,000 a year — as chief of staff of Boone County’s fire district in 2005.
R. David Paulison, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which funds Boone County’s urban search and rescue task force and wildland team, makes $148,000.
Paulsell defends his top-level administrators’ salaries, saying the Boone County Fire Protection District stands alone as the nation’s largest volunteer fire service run by only 15 paid staff.
“We respond to 4,000 emergency calls a year, much more than most career departments, and we only take in $3 million in tax revenue,” Paulsell said. “It would cost an additional $13 to $15 million to taxpayers to have a paid department provide this type of service, and they wouldn’t stand for that.”
Fire district leaders also point to the fire district’s large urban and rural coverage area, the largest geographically of any fire department in the state; how only 30 percent of the fire district’s $3.1 million budget is spent on salaries compared with higher percentages at other career departments; and the comparatively long hours Boone County firefighters work.
The salaries of three full-time employees, totaling nearly $214,000, are also paid for by FEMA.
“It’s hard to compare this department to any other place,” Paulsell said. “It’s so unique.”
Boone County’s fire district is indeed unique in that it has hundreds of volunteers and only a handful of paid staff, said John Buckman, fire chief of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Ind., and a former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Most of the larger volunteer fire districts in the country, Buckman said, have a more even ratio of volunteers to employees.
Even so, Buckman admits, Paulsell’s salary is “extremely high” compared with other fire chiefs’ salaries. But Buckman blames elected officials for the increase, not Paulsell.
“He didn’t set his own salary,” Buckman said. “Elected officials set his salary. The blame should be on them.”
Fire district salaries have been a point of contention for years.
Board member Shelly Dometrorch, a former lieutenant with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, made a decrease in some administrative salaries the centerpiece of her campaign last April for a seat on the fire district’s three-person board. She wrote the sheriff’s department’s first internal affairs policy.
“We want to be scientific about this,” Dometrorch said. “We want to look at how other fire districts pay their employees and adjust accordingly.”
After taking office, Dometrorch pushed the board to hire a consultant.
Dometrorch said she is putting together a five-member citizens’ panel to evaluate the information Scribner collects but said she already suspects that the district’s salaries are grossly inflated.
“From just my knowledge of public safety and the fire people I know around the country, I do think they are high,” Dometrorch said. “If it’s what I expect, the panel will come up with a good salary range for administrators and make the proposal to the board.”
Dometrorch said different boards have approved the district’s salaries and budgets over the years, making oversight difficult.
“We’re quite a bit stronger than previous boards,” Dometrorch said. “We ask a bit more questions in more detail than boards in the past. In order to be a good board of directors, you can’t be too close to the administration,” she said, alluding to the close relationship between Willis Smith and Paulsell, and Myrtle Rapp and Curry.
Former board members Rapp and John Richard declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Part of the problem might lie with how much the fire district awards in pay increases based on merit and performance evaluations.
For example, Curry’s salary in 1996 as a secretary with the fire district was $25,120. In 2001, she was promoted and given a salary increase to $65,000 — a 158 percent pay bump.
Paulsell has told board members that Curry was promoted and given raises after fire district leaders “expressed concern” that Curry was being paid less on the basis of her gender than the fire district’s other assistant fire chiefs for the same amount of work.
Paulsell said he lobbied against Curry’s pay increase, saying she had no fire experience or ranking in the fire district’s paramilitary system.
“The board accepted his recommendation, and her salary level was established at slightly less than her counterparts,” according to board minutes from the Aug. 11, 2005, meeting.
Now, as an assistant chief mostly in charge of grant writing, Curry, 45, makes $93,460 a year, nearly four times her 1996 salary.
Yearly salary rates from the fire district also show Curry has received nearly a 20 percent pay increase within just two years from $78,150 in 2003 to more than $93,000 in 2005.
Paulsell has also received big raises in recent years. In 2003, the chief made $149,248. Two years later, his pay had been bumped up by nearly 19 percent.
Missourian reporter Sheila Johnson contributed to this report.