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Westmoreland

Westmoreland boosts public safety job wages to stop drain to private sector

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 6:00 p.m.

A constant flow of employees leaving for the private sector has left a brain drain and expertise gap in Westmoreland County's public safety department, a problem officials hope to correct through restructuring and pay hikes.

Commissioners Ted Kopas and Charles Anderson, along with Controller Jeffrey Balzer, acting as the county's salary board, on Thursday voted to restructure the department, which operates the 911 dispatch system, coordinates first responders and oversees emergency and disaster responses.

“We owe it to the safety of our citizens to make sure we have the right people in the right spots,” Kopas said.

Commissioners said the restructuring was needed to entice public safety staffers to stay with the county rather than seek more lucrative employment in the private sector.

“It's difficult to find people to fill the slots. It's a revolving door there, and we need to retain good people,” Anderson said.

Commissioner Gina Cerilli voted against the restructuring, saying she did not have enough time to review the proposal.

“This was all extremely rushed. All county employees deserve raises, but we don't have the money for that,” Cerilli said.

The restructuring includes annual pay hikes averaging about $1,500 for 14 employees and raises the number of management-level positions.

In all, the moves will cost more than $45,000 a year.

Public Safety Director Roland Mertz said the department, which operates with a $10 million budget, has had a tough time retaining staff, including specialized technicians and 911 dispatchers. He did not say how many department staffers left for other jobs in the last year.

The department currently has 75 workers. Fifteen positions, mostly dispatchers, are vacant. The restructuring includes eliminating six dispatcher jobs and promoting three others to supervisor positions.

Other supervisor and management jobs were created to oversee logistics, quality assurance, public information, planning, finance and geographic information systems.

The plan creates a new position to coordinate all hazardous responses for the public safety department. Mertz said that person will serve as a liaison to the public, coordinating emergency and disaster response plans for potential threats including active shooters, terrorist attacks, chemical leaks and natural disasters.

“We're getting calls from schools, churches, nursing homes and businesses who want our help with creating plans to deal with those issues. It's hugely important we do this,” Mertz said.

Mertz said his department most recently lost its information technology director to a higher-paying private sector job.

“When we lose good people, it can set us back five years. We want to be able to retain what we have so we don't lose all of our knowledge and our experience goes out the door,” Mertz said.

A final piece of the restructuring includes creating a policy that will pay department staffers bonuses for achieving objectives and certifications. Commissioners said it will take about a year to finalize that policy.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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