Pass Christian is tired of training and losing its public safety team

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - Pass Christian's mayor is tired of his city being a training ground for other public safety departments.  So, Chipper McDermott wants to buck a national trend.  Instead of cutting jobs, McDermott wants to pump money into his police and fire departments.

Mayor McDermott is pushing for public safety pay raises.  And he has a plan that can make that happen.

"That we take the 21 firemen budgeted in the fire department, we go to 18, and take that money and increase their salaries," McDermott told WLOX News.

The Pass Christian officers who put their lives on the line every day say without pay raises, newly trained firemen and patrolmen will likely leave the city.

Austin Graham spends 36 hours a week on a Pass Christian fire truck.  That's his part time job.  Despite living in this city, his full time job is across the county, at the D'Iberville fire station.

"Pass Christian just doesn't pay enough," he conceded.

Terry Lewis is one of the fire department lieutenants.  He trains firefighters.  Quite often, that training benefits other departments around the coast.

"You can't blame these guys when they can go somewhere else in the same position at the same rank and make $8,000 to $10,000 more walking in the door," Lewis said.

The pay discrepancy between Pass Christian and other fire and police departments makes it almost impossible for this city to train and keep certified officers for any length of time.  Thomas Antoine is a Pass Christian police officer.  The department has just 13 patrolmen.

"It's just like a training camp.  We train them and then they go off to fight crime in another city," Antoine explained, pointing out that the salary issue is often to blame.

James Ellington considered leaving Pass Christian's North Street fire station for just that reason.

"Unfortunately what we get here, we're not able to basically get out on our own, live, have enough money to support ourselves," Ellington said.

But, then he heard the mayor pitched a pay hike proposal for the city's public safety personnel.

"It means I can stay here, a place that gave me my first opportunity," said Ellington.  "With that pay increase, I'd definitely be able to stay here and work around it."

The starting salary for a Pass Christian firefighter is $21,000.  Mayor McDermott wants the Board of Aldermen to bump that to $28,000 by eliminating three unfilled positions from the fire department's budget, and using that savings to fund the pay raise.  That would make the fire department's pay scale comparable to neighboring Long Beach ($28,500), and within a few thousand dollars of bigger departments in Gulfport ($29,100) and Biloxi ($36,193).

"Right now we're at almost a critical experience shortage," said Lewis.  "So it will mean we're able to keep experienced people rather than train them and sending them to another department."

How tough is it for Pass Christian to keep firefighters?  Because of salary issues, city leaders say the department has just 11 full time firemen right now.  Fortunately for the Pass, a part time staff, and an active volunteer fire force fills in whenever they're needed.

Pass Christian aldermen have a budget workshop this Thursday.  And the mayor says the public safety pay raises are supposed to be debated that night.

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