Cobb Police and firefighters protest staffing levels, pay at contentious BOC meeting

Police, firefighters, and their families and supporters at BOC meeting to push for staffing, increased pay and benefits (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)Police, firefighters, and their families and supporters at BOC meeting to push for staffing, increased pay and benefits (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Cobb Police and firefighters, and their families and supporters, packed last Tuesday night’s meeting of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners to lodge a protest for higher staffing levels, more pay, and improved benefits. One retired firefighter also raised the issue of lack of diversity in the fire department’s workforce.

The meeting was marked by heated comments and exchanges, even before it officially began.

Before the meeting, Jackie McMorris, Cobb’s deputy county manager, asked county employees to leave the main room and go to an overflow room with audiovisual equipment to watch the proceedings. Steve Gaynor, President of Cobb County’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge shouted to the assembled supporters, “Don’t leave the room!”

McMorris said she wasn’t talking about the police and firefighters who showed up, but only department heads and employees who had showed up for other business.

Seventeen speakers signed up for public comment, so BOC Chairman Mike Boyce split the list so that roughly half spoke before regular BOC business and half afterward.

Russell Clay, a resident of Mableton, said, “I retired from the Cobb County Fire Department after 25 years of service … during a period when there was a problem with diversity and systemic racism,” he said.  “I lived and worked in that period doing my service with the Cobb County Fire Department. And during that time period, there was an affirmative action plan that was adopted back in 1989, by the Board of Commissioners. One important point from that adopted plan: it said that as vacancies occur, every effort will be made to recruit, employ, and advance minorities and females.”

Clay said, “During my ten-year service after retiring and doing some research, I’ve found that that has not been met, and is not even near being acceptable. Currently right now Cobb County stands, the fire department at least stands as 88.4 percent white, which is 603 employees, 6.7 percent African-American, which is 46 employees, 2.9 percent Hispanic, which is 20 employees, .02 percent Native Americans, which is 2, .02 percent Asians which is 2, so by all means those numbers do not meet the adopted affirmative action plan by the Board of Commissioners back in 1989.”

“And so what I’m here before the board today, is to ask that the board take accountability for the administration that served as the fire department management during that time period, the director of public safety during that time period, as well as the director of human resources,” he said.

Former Cobb firefighter Matt Babcock said, “I had the honor of being a Cobb firefighter for ten years until I resigned last month. I had to make the difficult decision to leave the job that I loved because that was what was best for my family. Now in my new career, I’m able to work less hours, make a higher paycheck, and have a better retirement. When I became a firefighter in 2008, Cobb County was the premier department in Georgia, and there was fierce competition for each slot in the new recruit school.”

“Back then,” he said, “we had over a thousand applicants show up to the pre-hire test. Now we’re lucky to get one third that many. This shrinking candidate pool is making it difficult to fill open positions. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Cobb firefighters are leaving for other departments or private-sector jobs with better pay and benefits.”

He said currently there are three firefighters per engine.

“When responding to a house fire, the four personnel on a fully staffed engine are able to divide into two teams of two, and accomplish two tasks at the same time.” he said.

He said the problem with three-person staffing is that firefighters have to make a choice between continuing to keep fighting the spread of the fire, or entering the building to search for victims.

“On the other hand a minimally staffed engine with only three people can’t send in one person alone. So the three-person crew has to choose between performing a search for victims while the fire grows, or delaying the search until the fire has been put out.”

“So what’s the solution? Our public safety employees aren’t sticking around because they see that they don’t have a future with Cobb,” he said.  “In 2010, the retirement plan was gutted, and is now the worst retirement in the metro area. Our starting pay is about average, but rewards for performance and longevity are seriously lacking. Dekalb County recently approved a four percent public safety raise. And Gwinnett County recently approved a seven and a half percent partially merit-based raise for the second year in a row. Meanwhile Cobb County firefighters have not received a raise in over three years, and they’re being told to just hang on, maybe next year. This is not how we build a strong fire department.”

Kim Hill, of Blue Thanksgiving, which she described as an organization to support local law enforcement, first responders, and public safety spoke next.

She said that commissioners have been warned of a crisis in public safety for five years, and have ignored it.

“Years of failure have brought us here. Since my involvement in this campaign to raise public awareness of this issue, I have received numerous letters, messages, emails, you name it. They’re all calling me, texting me telling me their stories. These are all Cobb County law enforcement and their families expressing how angry, hopeless, betrayed and even afraid they feel because of the lack of response to this situation.”

Susan Hampton said, “My name is Susan Hampton, I live in East Cobb County, and as most of you know, I am the originator of the flier that is entitled ‘Cobb Law Enforcement in Crisis.’ Over the last six weeks, I have spoken with each of you (the commissioners) in meetings, or over lunch, or at the most recent town hall meeting. Each of you say public safety is number one, and you are committed to fixing the problem. But then, you say, you are only one vote, and it takes three votes to take corrective action.”

“The problem is over ten years old,” she said, “and it is getting worse every week. Can we really continue to kick this can down the road? The police department alone has over eighty open positions.”

Cobb County Attorney Lance LoRusso said, “We keep hearing excuses and we’ve heard them for years. I’m going to list some of them:

‘It’s not a crisis.’  It was a crisis six years ago when I tried to have breakfast with Tim Lee and explain it to him. And he told me it wasn’t a crisis and he didn’t want to deal with it, but it’s worse now. It’s a crisis mode that’s now become SOP as you heard from that young firefighter who was forced to leave Cobb.

‘I’m only one vote.’  It’s only one officer responding to a domestic dispute alone because they are short staffed. It’s only one deputy serving a warrant by themselves. It’s only one firefighter having to come in and work overtime because they’re short staffed.”

‘These are tough choices.’ Several of you have said, I don’t know if you’ve heard yourself say it sometimes, ‘It’s hard to close a library.’ But it’s falling on deaf ears, because the people in the police department, sheriff’s office, and firefighters make harder choices than closing libraries every day that they go to work. They remove a child from an abusive home, pursue a fugitive in dangerous areas that most of you wouldn’t go on a bet, not on a ride-along, and going into a burning house to save a child. They make tougher decisions every day than any of you ever dreamed of as commissioners. Yet you disrespect them with your words and your inaction.”

“It’s not your priority to worry about greenspaces and libraries as your first mission. Without safety and security, Cobb does not and will not prosper,” he said.

Cobb FOP lodge President Steve Gaynor said, “I represent over 760 active members of law enforcement. You said we didn’t care, sir, and we are here to show we do care.”

The audience broke into applause.

Boyce said, “I have been more than patient. I appreciate your passion and enthusiasm. There’s a decorum in this room. And you have to let the speaker finish his speech, And then you can do your thing.”

He added time to Gaynor’s allotment.

“I want to tell you about an incident last night,” Gaynor said, “that I think most of you are aware of. A Zone 2 officer encountered an armed subject which they knew to be armed and dangerous. By himself, (he) was involved in a shootout with that individual. He had no backup, he had nobody there to help him. He defended himself, the suspect was shot twice, and the officer was not shot at all. But there was not enough officers to set up a perimeter, so we couldn’t catch that individual until he was found on a porch in the morning, by a resident.”

“That’s not the security that we need to provide to Cobb County residents here,” he said.”You need to show your dedication to public safety by taking action.”

Chuck Baird, a resident of Cobb County since 1974, who retired from the Cobb fire department two years ago, said, “Back in the day they didn’t teach us about the risks beyond the on-duty risks, I knew the hazards of a fire. I knew the toxins and poisons would kill me if I didn’t breathe out of a bottle. But I didn’t understand what they did to me long term. Not until I got older, got promoted through the ranks, and I had to care for the others in the station. So then I started to learn those risks of cancer, of cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, that usually don’t kill us while we’re on duty. We keep ourselves pretty healthy while we’re on the job, but we shorten our lifespan to serve our communities.”

He said, “What you’re taking from them is the ability to have the retirement that I got, I have a defined benefit plan. Our firefighters today don’t get health care when they retire. And I understand healthcare costs a lot of money. But this group of people, who’ve served this county with pride for 28 years, they deserve to be protected when they retire.”

During the closing comments by commissioners, District 4 Commissioner Lisa Cupid said,  “I do recognize that there is great disparity in how we have supported those in our county who serve in public safety and those who serve our county throughout all of our agencies. And the term shared here tonight was ‘kicking the can down the road,’ which is not the first time that we’ve heard that term when it comes time for budgeting. And I think all of our hearts were in the right place to want to provide adequate compensation to those who serve our county day-in and day-out. But as was observed in a lot of the comments there is a strong political wind that seems to have gotten the best of our ability to be able to provide our employees the best opportunity to serve our citizens well.”

After mentioning the upcoming budget she said, “I would just strongly encourage you to be a vocal part of that process, and to help us do the right things.”

She said, “There was a comment made that public safety is number one. Service to our citizenry is number one. But public safety allows us to be able to serve our citizens. And so I just don’t want us to lose sight of that,” she said. “When we strap ourselves we hem ourselves to having such low resources for the growth that is within this county, we start pitting people against each other.”

Boyce said, “I realize I’m the last between you and that door, but I’m going to be a straight-shooter here tonight.”

“First of all, Mr. LoRusso,” he said,  “there are some of us here on this board who do know what it means to be on the other side of a gunfight. So don’t generalize your comments. Where I’ve been, you’ve probably never been. So I understand, what happens about taking care of your people, making sure they’ve got your six, and they can rely on you all of the time. That’s why I’ve done all I can since I’ve come into office, to share my concern with public safety, and the fire department, and EMS, and 911.”

“I want to clear a couple of things up here,” he said.  “First of all, Ms. Hampton has been to everyone except one of our fourteen town halls. I gave her the floor for 13 of them, and not only gave her the floor for that but gave her unabridged. I let her have the floor, I left the room, she could talk as long as she wanted to. So she’s been piggy-backing off me. Why is that? Because ladies and gentlemen, this is America, and we have First Amendment rights. And I do not believe in restraining those First Amendment rights.”

He said, “Because my comment to her was last year … it wasn’t that I (said) that people didn’t care, What I said to her was, the concern of the people seemed to be about issues other than public safety. That was no way, no way, no way, a remark that people didn’t care. Of course people care about their public safety … the reality, though, is that we deal with a very, very diverse public. They have various interests. Some care about libraries, some care about the extension, some care about recreation centers, some care more about public safety.”

“But the point that I’m making here is that I said to her ‘You need to go find the same level of interest this year that I saw last year’, and ladies and gentlemen she did exactly that, which is why you’re here today,” Boyce said.

He said, “The fact that you can all sit here, in this room, in uniform, and know that there will be absolutely no retribution to your presence , should say something about this board. You are a voice. Your First Amendment rights are not abridged by the fact that you’re wearing a uniform. The fact that you’re all here tonight says something about the organization of Susan, and the group behind them. But it says more to the fact that we believe in representative democracy and you would not be here tonight if you didn’t think this board was going to be able to do something for you. If you thought that this was a waste of your time you would not be here tonight. But you’re here tonight, because deep down inside you know we’re going to fix this problem.”