Jackson fire chief shows little concern for losing personnel over low wages

Published: Aug. 9, 2023 at 7:39 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Between Monday and Tuesday, nearly 100 Jackson firefighters called out sick in protest of low wages.

Many of them packed inside city hall for the second time Wednesday to hear their chief present his proposed budget at the city council’s budget hearing.

In the end, they were far from pleased with how things went.

At one point, about 15 to 20 firefighters stormed outside screaming about how the chief didn’t offer the council hardly any suggestions for how to increase their pay.

In all, Chief Owens’ presentation lasted 10 minutes and not a single sentence had to do with boosting pay for his employees.

In fact, it was city council members who brought the issue forward.

“I’m pretty sure the elephant in the room is pay raises,” Councilman Vernon Hartley said. “Is there anything in this budget to address it?”

“No, we don’t have anything in this budget that could give a raise,” Chief Owens said in response. “We really don’t.”

Much of the back and forth between council members and the chief revolved around the possibility of cutting vacant positions that JFD is budgeted for.

Currently, the department is budgeted for 354 positions and has about 65 vacancies, according to Chief Owens.

Council President Aaron Banks told Chief Owens that the Jackson Police Department is in a similar position.

According to Banks, JPD Interim Police Chief Joseph Wade brought a study to Wednesday’s budget hearing that said the city of Jackson needs 500 police officers. Currently, Wade only has 229, which is short of the 304 positions JPD is budgeted for.

Wade doesn’t think it’s realistic to think JPD will fill all those positions within the upcoming fiscal year, so he decided to cut 29 of the department’s budgeted positions to free up funds for a slight bump in pay for officers.

“You mean to tell me that there’s absolutely no way in the world where you can say, ‘I can freeze 30 positions or I can take away 30 positions, so I can give these guys some type of competitive pay?’” Council President Aaron Banks asked.

In response, Chief Owens said, “No, I can’t do that.”

The chief said he’s confident the department will be able to fill all 65 of its vacancies and eliminating positions will just result in having to shell out more in overtime pay.

So, with the chief unwilling to free up money within JFD, city council members would likely either have to cut positions from other departments or have the citizens pay for salary increases.

Council members gave no indication that they like the sound of either option.

“My worry is the firefighters having to pay for their own raise with this tax increase,” Council Vice President Angelique Lee said.

Lee went on to mention that the council doesn’t know at this time what citizens’ water rates and garbage rates are going to be.

“We cannot keep putting this on the people. It’s a basic necessity that the people should have and deserve,” she said.

After the budget hearing, 3 On Your Side asked Chief Owens if there is anything JFD can do to give its men and women raises.

“Not what they want,” he responded. “Not what they are looking for.”

Between Chief Owens’ unwillingness to cut positions and the council’s reservations about implementing a tax increase or cutting positions from other city departments, it raises concerns that firefighters will head to other cities where Chief Owens estimates departments are paying 10 to 15 thousand dollars more than JFD.

“If they do that, then we’ll have to do what we have to do. We’ll try to fill positions the best way we can,” the chief said.

Some of what Chief Owens did present to the council Wednesday were requests for equipment funding.

But longtime firefighter and union president ReSean Thomas said the chief’s primary concern should be not having anyone to operate that equipment.

“I thought it was very disrespectful, disheartening for the chief not to have actual raise numbers for the firefighters in his proposal after he’s had our proposal for several weeks now,” Thomas said. “It’s also mind-boggling to me that the council had to drill him and try to pull numbers out of him to try to help him get halfway to the raise-point that we want to be.”

Thomas said he also doesn’t think the chief is being truthful when he says he supports raises for his employees.

“He keeps saying he does support pay raises. However, he did not present a pay raise. If you support it, why aren’t you presenting it?” he asked.

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