Firefighter tuition reinbursement questioned
March 09, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- For the past ten years, one of the perks of being a firefighter here is tuition reimbursement.
|Army Sgt. Brian MacConaghy, visits with students in a Belle Ann Elementary School first grade class last week. Photo by Patrick McAbree. (click for larger version)|
Part-time (on-call) firefighters can receive up to $500 and full-time firefighters can receive up to $1,000 annually for tuition costs relating to any degree related to the fire department, including emergency medical services, firefighter technology and business administration.
"The hope is to further the education of both our part-time and full-time employees and by doing so, further help our residents," said Fire Chief David Kwapis.
However, that tuition benefit may be coming to a halt soon.
"We shouldn't be paying anyone's college tuition," said Clerk Jeannie McCreery during the March 7 township board meeting. "I paid my own way. We should stop right now. We can't afford to do this anymore. This is not acceptable for taxpayers."
McCreery noted her family is struggling to pay for her granddaughter's college tuition, and she doesn't want to pay for someone else.
Kwapis responded that the reimbursement pays for paramedic firefighting education and increases the skillset of firefighters. Some general education classes may be taken also, because the benefit doesn't specify which classes must be taken and those classes might also be required for a degree.
McCreery said she is not opposed to specific paramedic courses, only to the township funding a bachelor's degree.
The board approved the 2011 benefits for part-time firefighters, including the tuition benefit, by a 4-2 vote at the meeting. Treasurer Terry Beltramo and Trustees Bob DeWitt, Cheryl Gault, and David King voted yes. McCreery and Supervisor Kathy Thurman voted no. Trustee Tom Stowell was absent. The board postponed approval of the 2011 full-time firefighter benefits as they clarify wording regarding retirement contributions.
Thurman said she believes the current tuition reimbursement is too high, especially because the township policy only allows for a $300 tuition reimbursement for other township employees.
"I think education is important, but I don't think the taxpayers should be paying for it in the amounts that are currently in the firefighter benefit package," she said. "We also need to add a stipulation that it's only for classes directly related to improving firefighting skills... Until the economy turns around, it might be wise to put a hold on allowing those expenditures. If it's not addressed now, the reimbursement will possibly be changed in the fall."
The fire department has had a 14.43 percent reduction in its budget for 2011, a result of decreasing property values and tax revenue. Last year, the healthcare plan for all township employees, including firefighters, was changed from a PPO to an HMO, saving the township more than $100,000 in premiums, Kwapis said, but resulting in higher co-pays and deductibles for employees. While he understands that the change was necessary to save money and save jobs, he hopes the larger sacrifice might enable employees to keep some less costly benefits. He notes that in ten years of offering the tuition benefit, the most that has been reimbursed in any one year was $2,100.
"Only a couple people are using it," Kwapis said. "Eliminating it might not prevent them from pursuing education, but it could slow them down."
Firefighter Billy Starr spoke at the board meeting in favor of keeping the benefit.
"Firefighters get up from their dinners and in the middle of the night to help citizens," he said. "Tuition is one more thing to offer them as an incentive."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville