Aug. 12—MARIETTA — For the second month in a row, rank-and-file Marietta firefighters staged a walk-in at a City Council meeting to signal their discontent with the department's pay structure.
The silent protest Wednesday night occurred despite the city's adoption earlier this year of a comprehensive pay study that sought to provide "internal equity," and resulted in raises for nearly all city staff.
About two dozen firefighters lined the back of the council chambers as a retired Marietta Fire captain read a statement on their behalf.
"Your newly approved pay ranges are meaningless without a structured pathway to advance," said Merv McDonald, who served in the department for 20 years. "For the past four years members of the fire department have attempted to address these issues with Chief Milligan. These interactions have been highly unfavorable and ineffective. For Tim Milligan to tell the media that he was unaware of our frustration is insulting and unacceptable."
City officials, meanwhile, denied many of the captain's allegations, defending the city's pay structure and Chief Tim Milligan's leadership.
For the second time in as many months, McDonald painted a picture of a department plagued by understaffing, long hours, favoritism, low morale and fear of retaliation. But in an unusual move for the city, spokesperson Lindsey Wiles also took the podium during public comment, reading a statement in defense of Milligan.
"The chief has always been open to meeting with any personnel to discuss any types of concerns they may have. Those meetings directly resulted in pay adjustments that address compression and are a primary reason fire personnel have received an average 21% pay increase over the last 36 months," Wiles said.
In April, the council adopted the recommendations of a study conducted by consultant Evergreen Solutions (costing the city $42,500), which included a new plan and salary ranges for each rank within the fire department. In doing so, the council approved blanket 3% raises for nearly all city employees. Depending on the study's recommendations for each classification, many workers received substantially larger raises — starting pay for public safety employees increased by some 9%, according to City Manager Bill Bruton.
Aimed at improving recruitment and retention across city departments, the study compared Marietta's salary ranges and benefits to the city's competitors — mainly other local governments.
Adopting the recommendations of the study was supposed to reduce problems such as compression, which occurs when new hires are making similar wages to experienced employees, due to the labor market outpacing an employee's raises over time.
Current firefighters stood silently at the back of the room, clapping after McDonald's remarks. They also applauded after Donald Barth, who speaks passionately at almost every meeting, lambasted the council, asking them, "you don't think you owe them a little bit of respect when they put their life on the line for us?"
"What I'm trying to tell you is the working class stiff has as many rights as anybody else, they're the ones who pull the load," Barth said.
McDonald said at the council's July meeting that the new pay plan didn't put in place any means for determining where a rank-and-file firefighter lands in their salary range of between $45,019 and $70,425.
Milligan told the MDJ that promotions are considered by a seven-member panel. And City Manager Bill Bruton said Milligan has "almost solved" the department's compression issues by ensuring that peer adjustments are made on a monthly basis when firefighters are promoted.
McDonald said Wednesday that since the widely publicized walk-in last month, nobody has reached out to the rank-and-file about their complaints. Mayor Steve Tumlin took issue with that, telling the MDJ he speaks to firefighters regularly to take the department's temperature.
The mayor said after the meeting that while the firefighters' visible dissatisfaction was concerning, "we basically are standing behind our pay study."
"I think we have a good system. But I would be much happier if they were happier," Tumlin said.
Milligan also said that after the July incident, he sent two emails to his entire department soliciting feedback, which only resulted in one meeting with a firefighter who had questions about their pay.
"... Two weeks ago at the last council meeting, it really kind of caught me off guard, and again, even now, I still don't know. Give me the problem to solve, so we can go work on it together. And I have yet to hear that," Milligan said.
Another point of contention is the termination of a firefighter earlier this year after he "attempted to organize a discussion about pay," in McDonald's telling.
The city maintains that the firefighter was fired for violating departmental policies unrelated to pay.
"This firefighter was separated for dishonesty, lack of integrity and for compromising the trust the public instills in our department," Wiles said.
McDonald said the department is "short-staffed by 22 members." Milligan said the department has 133 firefighters and just three vacancies.
The chief, Bruton said, has been visiting fire stations to check on his staff. If firefighters don't feel comfortable going to the chief, he said, they can talk to human resources.
"There have been a lot of things said, but there's no clarity on exactly what the issue is. ... I don't know that there is one big issue that everybody has," Bruton said.
Bruton said Wiles spoke during the public comment period to set the record straight.
"That was staff, including me, wanting to answer some of the things that are going around right now that are just not true. And to get it on the public record, since ... individuals who are standing up and saying things that are not based on fact, the facts needed to be said, and you heard some of that tonight," Bruton said.
The mayor emphasized the council is "not at war" with the firefighters, and that if all those who participated in the protest were to quit, it would be "very scary."
"It just concerns me that they're not happy yet, and how do you address that? ... I don't think anybody has a button they can push that will make everybody happy, but I sure respect their right," the mayor said.