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By Jessie Burchette
Salisbury Post
Faced with increasing staff turnover, the Rowan County Emergency Medical Services director is asking the county for better pay, better hours and a new training program.
Beth Connell, EMS director, and Frank Thomason, emergency services director, spoke during the first day of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners annual retreat Wednesday to make the case for helping the agency provide critical services to county residents.
Connell said EMS staffing shortages exist across the state, and experienced employees are being lured to surrounding counties for higher pay.
A study of salaries prepared by a consultant for the county showed Rowan’s annual starting pay for paramedics is almost $3,000 a year less than in Cabarrus County. The average Rowan paramedic makes $11,000 a year less than a Davidson County paramedic.
Due to the inability to hire and keep staff, Connell said, the EMS has not been fully staffed for the past 18 months. In many cases, supervisors have had to fill in on calls.
Connell and Thomason proposed several options to improve the situation, including adding one full shift of 15 people, which would allow staff to work 24 hours on and 72 off instead of the current 24 on and 48 off.
Officials estimated that would cost $600,000 or more annually.
Another proposal, which appeared to generate more interest from commissioners, was the addition of a peak-time unit that would work a 12-hour shift, likely 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The peak-time shift would require a total of four staffers and one ambulance, but no sleeping quarters. The unit could be based at a fire department.
Officials estimated the cost of the peak-time proposal at $170,000.
Connell also outlined a plan for an EMS Academy through Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The paramedic candidates would be paid a $21,586 annual salary while going to school and would also work with EMS. Upon completing the course, they would be required to work for the county for at least three years or pay back a portion of the salary.
Commissioner Jim Sides and Chairman Arnold Chamberlain suggested people who chose to be paramedics should know what the job entails, including the work, the hours and the pay.
Sides recited a list of county employees who likewise feel they should be paid more, including Social Services workers.
“Unlike librarians, what we do is life or death,” Connell said.
Sides also noted that pay scales and hours are part of people’s choices. He cited the UPS driver who picks up and delivers packages.
“He makes $70,000 a year, plus benefits,” he said. “That’s his choice.”
Sides went on to express support for the peak-time unit idea, adding that he would much rather invest money in people than buildings.
The staffing issue is likely to come back to commissioners during budget discussions later this year.
Chamberlain asked about training or efforts to reduce or prevent injuries that result in worker compensation claims, noting that EMS has generated several.
Commissioners heard nine presentations Wednesday at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Here is a brief look at some of the topics:
– Commissioners agreed to hear a full proposal from the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission on taking over marketing of the county-owned Summit Corporate Center.
Robert Van Geons, the new EDC executive director, said every facet of the agency operation is being reviewed and will be revamped to get the maximum benefit for the county.
– An employment consultant hired by the county reported serious problems with the pay system, which doesn’t allow employees to move across pay ranges. Becky Veazey, of Maps, said the county has the classic ski-slope compression curve, with most employees grouped together on one end and few on the other.
She said the problems that arise include difficulties in hiring, low morale and turnover.
– Consultants updated the board on several projects at the county airport, including development of a master plan and conducting a feasibility study to extend the airport, buy property and build hangars for corporate jets.
The study and master plan are expected to be completed in December. Plans for new hangars are expected to be ready within a few weeks. Three to four owners of large planes have contacted the county about leasing hangar space.
– Don Bringle, parks director, gave commissioners an extensive overview of county parks and the fairgrounds.
Bringle’s project list includes developing some type of farm center or museum at Sloan Park.
– Ed Muire, director of planning and development, said a draft land-use plan will likely be ready to take to the public in May and could come to the county commissioners for action in July.
– James Cowden, Extension Service chairman, discussed various programs to preserve farmland, ranging from voluntary agricultural districts to the purchase of conservation easements.
Cowden said five Rowan farmers have applied to a new state program that would buy the easements. The farmers would donate up to 30 percent of the value to meet the requirement for matching funds.
The retreat continues today in Room 251 of the Brownell Building starting at 8 a.m., with adjournment set for 4:30 p.m.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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