Ga. city FFs continue months-long protest over wages, alleged hostile environment
"We don't have an objective pay structure," said Webb Smith, one of two Marietta firefighters to resign in protest
By Jake Busch
Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
MARIETTA, Ga. — Dillon Guest donned his Marietta Fire Department uniform when he spoke before the City Council Wednesday evening. After the meeting, Guest removed the shirt with the department's seal.
"Not once have I complained to the chiefs or spoke against their authority, but to watch my brothers and sisters raked over the coals for almost a decade with no remedy, it's time I take my stand," Guest said during his public comment at the meeting's end. "There's been retaliation, impulsive discipline, targeting, wrongful termination and flat-out lies from our leaders."
Guest resigned from the fire department to close his remarks, a response to what he and other firefighters have identified as stagnant wages and a hostile work environment. He said this combination of factors led him to lose faith in the leadership of Marietta Fire Chief Tim Milligan.
Starting in July, firefighters protested at council meetings over what they have described as inadequate pay, with retired members of the department then speaking on behalf of active firefighters due to fears of retaliation from Milligan. The protests continued at the August meeting before Guest and others spoke about the issue Wednesday.
Guest invoked the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem when identifying how city staff, including Milligan and City Manager Bill Bruton, have failed to act on complaints among colleagues of lagging wages, which he said has made it impossible for him to support a growing family (his wife Rebekah was in attendance with the couple's infant son).
"As a follower of Christ and a public servant, I can no longer remain silent. This draws a striking similarity to the Pharisees and corrupt salesmen in the Temple, and it is time to flip the proverbial tables and speak out, not only as the minority, but as the majority. It is no accident that this room has been lined with firemen for weeks and weeks for these ... meetings. To Bill Bruton, to (HR director) Davy Godfrey, to Tim Milligan, to (Deputy Fire Chief) Christi Malec, I say to you: You hypocrites, you brood of vipers, we've (come) to you time and time again, and you've denied us," Guest said. "The front line of the city has cried out, begging you to move, pleading with you to follow your own rules, to just obey them and hold up your end of the bargain, yet you remain there, still."
Webb Smith resigned from the department last Friday after 15 years, he told the council during his remarks at the beginning of the meeting.
Smith said he and other firefighters hoped that, after the walk-ins by members of the department at the July and August council meetings, council members would reach out to them to learn more about examples of pay issues in the department.
He presented one example, showing a chart alleging pay for the vast majority of the department's lieutenants is in the lowest quartile of a range between $67,895 and $108,595.
"We don't have an objective pay structure," Smith said. "What we have is a chief who gets to determine our value. He decides where we land on this line, and he has decided that all of his lieutenants belong in the bottom quartile. This is 20 lieutenants with up to 24 years of experience."
Smith called the pay range "a hoax" if no lieutenants have yet reached the maximum salary. He called the false promise of pay flexibility the end of firefighting as a profession.
"It used to be this noble, 25-year career, whereas you ran calls, and as you served the public and as you gained experience and as you earned tenure you progressed and you moved toward the end and at the end of your 25-year career, you had a very nice salary, and your pension was based on that salary," Smith said. "But now, all this is gone. These lieutenants right here, within the next two years they are eligible for retirement. They're gonna retire in the bottom quartile along with one-year lieutenants."
Both Smith and Guest named Milligan, Bruton and Godfrey as the ones implementing an unfair compensation system they are doing nothing to fix. Smith urged the council to stop leaning on those he said are causing the problem to fix it.
"There's a problem, and if you don't want to talk about it, we're really hoping that you'll read about it," Smith said, holding up a report to which he said over 30 firefighters contributed their concerns about pay, staffing and work environment.
Chief Milligan told the MDJ he sent several emails to the entire department following the first protest at July's City Council meeting, asking the firefighters to let him or their superiors know of any questions or concerns they had, but that he never heard from anyone.
When they again protested at the August meeting, Milligan then sent his leadership team out to departments to hear directly from the employees about their complaints.
"And then we held, the whole leadership team ... town hall meetings with the entire department over the three shifts, talking through those certain things," Milligan said, an action that led to eight or nine more follow-up meetings.
Milligan defended department leadership, saying they are out there listening to the firefighters and working to determine solutions to their concerns.
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'You could've heard a pin drop'
Marietta had previously explored options for improving public safety employee pay, starting the process in October 2021 with a study into payment plans, said Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin.
The plan adopted by Marietta in April was prepared by outside consultant Evergreen Solutions (costing the city $42,500) and laid out a broad salary range for each rank within the fire department.
Rank-and-file firefighters, for example, are paid annually between $45,019 and $70,425, the Journal reported in July. Starting pay for public safety employees increased by some 9%, according to Bruton.
Tumlin defended the city's pay plan but said the council will be reaching out to learn more about the firefighters' concerns. He signaled any changes would be coming from city staff, such as Bruton, Milligan and Godfrey, the people Guest and Smith urged the council to overrule.
"It's competition driven, too," Tumlin said of employee pay. " Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Johns Creek, city of Atlanta, Cobb County, we're all looking for good men and women ... and we couldn't ever set a price but I think we're all gonna have to communicate better because if somebody can drive nine miles and make a better living, take care of his family, I think we just have to be aware of that and make decisions."
Tumlin said Guest's resignation at the meeting was disappointing.
"You could've heard a pin drop for 20 minutes after he said that, but it was quite a deadening to a council meeting," Tumlin said, calling Guest "a good guy."
He also noted that Guest, a nine-year veteran of the department, was in a 2017 car crash in Los Angeles that killed fellow Marietta firefighter Ron Herens.
Milligan said Guest had never come to him directly with any concerns related to the pay controversy. He had spoken with Guest about the firefighter's wife and son and said those conversations were "very pleasant," never touching on pay or staffing complaints.
"In all that time, in all of the communications of any concerns or otherwise, I never heard a single thing out of him," Milligan said.
With the resignations of Guest and Smith, Milligan said, the department is now at four vacancies out of 133 positions. Smith, in his remarks to the council, lamented his departure from his chosen career.
"I didn't just resign, I left a calling that to be honest, I should still be doing," Smith said. "You're losing your department, but I thank you for extending my career, for giving me five more minutes, you gave me five minutes today and I thank you for helping me try one more time to make a difference."
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