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JUSTICE MUST BE WON

Alabama/The Mobile News

 

Prichard recoups training expenses

 

06/29/02

By JEB SCHRENK
Staff Reporter

For years, Prichard watched its newly trained firefighters abandon their positions for better paying jobs in Mobile.

And for years, Prichard swallowed the cost of their training.

The expenses added up, and Prichard finally sent Mobile a bill for nearly $167,900.

"It was strictly a business decision. It was nothing personal," said Prichard Fire Chief James "Bo" White. "All I'm trying to do is retain the people that I have."

Prichard and Mobile agreed this month to a settlement of $121,308 -- minus $13,241, mostly for Prichard's use of the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department's training facility.

The difference, $108,067, was deducted from the $411,175 Prichard owes Mobile from its bankruptcy plan.

Prichard, with about 28,600 residents, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in October 1999. The city owes Mobile money for paying Prichard's share of Mobile County Personnel Board expenses.

Prichard made the Fire Department reimbursement claim under an Alabama statute that allows municipalities to be compensated for the expense of training, including salary during that time, of emergency personnel who jump to another municipality within two years of being trained. The law previously allowed reimbursement within only one year of training.

Robert Ezekiel, who has served as president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs, said recouping training costs is not uncommon, but he said he's not sure how often the law is used. How much money a city has lost could be a determining factor, said Ezekiel, who serves as fire chief for Mountain Brook, a city just outside Birmingham.

"I guess it really comes down to how many times a city has been hit with that," he said.

Prichard has been hit hard.

The Fire Department has lost 55 employees to Mobile and 11 to Saraland since 1996, said Prichard attorney Arthur Madden, who said he got the information from the Mobile County Personnel Board.

The statute for reimbursement did not cover all of those workers. Some of the employees were hired outside of the two-year or one-year time periods. Some were laid off when Prichard filed for bankruptcy, and some left for another job before joining another city's department.

Prichard's $167,900 claim was for 35 employees. After negotiating with Mobile's attorney, the two sides settled on the $121,308 for 24 employees, Madden said.

Madden said Saraland reimbursed Prichard $11,700 for three firefighters.

It may not have been with out cost to Prichard.

"There was a lot of good will" between Mobile and Prichard's fire departments, Madden said at a recent council meeting. "When we did this, it was kind of like, 'How dare you do this (with) all we've done for you.'"

Mobile fire Chief Steven Dean said he does not believe the settlement will affect the relationship between the two departments.

"We still have an open line of communication, and we're going to keep it that way," he said.

Dean said it will not deter his department from hiring Prichard employees in the future. Even if job candidates have training and experience, however, they must go through Mobile's training, he said.

White said he began looking at a way to reimburse the city after seeing so many of his employees leave for better pay. Starting pay for a firefighter in Mobile is $24,744, compared with $18,912 in Prichard, according to the Mobile County Personnel Board.

About the time Prichard filed for bankruptcy, White said, he called the Birmingham Fire Department, because he heard they had been reimbursed for employees who left.

Someone at the Birmingham department faxed him a copy of the law, and White said he forwarded the matter to Madden.

Mountain Brook's Ezekiel said his department adopted a policy obligating its employees to pay any fees another department tries to recoup. Ezekiel said he has been chief for nine years, and no city has tried to recoup losses from Mountain Brook.

Hiring firefighters who are already trained, like Mobile did, can be worth paying the expense of that training, Ezekiel said.

"It has value, and they paid for that value," he said. "Obviously, $100,000 is big check."

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