CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Kanawha County paramedics have reason to celebrate the start of 2008 as the hefty pay raises most received a few months ago have been followed by a more generous pension plan.
Ambulance Authority officials hope the changes will help them hold onto employees. High turnover has been a chronic problem for the agency.
Kanawha County officials drafted the bill creating a new retirement plan for ambulance workers in county authorities across the state. The workers until now have participated in the state retirement plan for public employees.
It was approved during the 2007 session of the Legislature, but it stipulated that 85 percent of the employees had to sign up for the plan by Jan. 1
The mark was passed last week, with 88 percent of employees statewide approving it.
Joe Lynch, the director of the Kanawha authority, hopes the new plan will enable his agency to retain and recruit paramedics.
"We now have a plan where we're on the level of policeman and fire fighters," Lynch said. "This has been a dream of ours for a long time."
In its 30-year existence, the county's ambulance authority never has had a paramedic remain until retirement age.
No one stayed that long even though employees and the authority paid a combined $1 million a year into the state retirement plan.
Lynch said most paramedics would leave the authority after about seven years.
Some workers left their contributions in the fund and drew a benefit when they eventually retired from other jobs. But a majority of exiting employees opted to cash out their contributions and forfeit the employer contributions paid into the system, Lynch said.
"We have a relatively young workforce," Lynch said. "Hopefully this plan will give them an incentive to stay."
About 531 paramedics in county ambulance authorities across the state will benefit from the new plan.
The Kanawha County authority employs about 250 full- and part-time employees. They transport 70,000 patients each year. The organization answers emergency calls across the county.
Lynch said the plan comes at no extra costs to the employer or the county. Under the plan, the employer's contribution of 10.5 percent of the workers' pay stays the same.
The cost will be covered by an increase in the employee contribution. The yearly figure is now 8.5 percent, up from the previous 4.5 percent.
Charleston police and fire fighters contribute 8 percent to their pension funds.
The new plan also reduces the minimum retirement age from 55 to 50.
Previously, to retire, an employee's years of service and age had to add up to 80. Under the new plan, the number is 70.
County Commission President Kent Carper said the retirement plan is a significant achievement for the ambulance authorities.
Carper helped with the plan after the ambulance authority struggled for years on the issue.
"It wasn't going anywhere," Carper said. "They kind of threw in the towel."
Carper's first step was to go to Gov. Joe Manchin and county legislators. He gained the support of Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, who chairs the Legislature's pension committee.
Carper said actuaries looked at the plan to make sure it would be financially sound.
"I wouldn't have supported it unless it was the fiscally responsible thing to do," Carper said. "Numbers were crunched on a half dozen calculators. This was looked at very carefully."
Carper said he volunteered his time to help the authority maintain its workforce. Last year, the authority had a 16 percent turnover rate.
"I felt it was critically important to keep our very best paramedics," Carper said. "The only way to do that was to turn it into a profession where people have a chance of retiring."
Kanawha County paramedics also have received pay increases.
Seven months ago, the starting pay for a paramedic jumped from $28,000 to $38,000, Lynch said.
Current employees making a figure between those two sums were bumped to $38,000, he said. Those that make over $38,000 did not see their pay increase.
Lynch said about 75 paramedics benefited from the pay upgrade.
The pay increase came after the authority cut back on non-emergency transport services. It included eliminating the use of medical vans to give people rides to doctors' appointments.
Employees currently get $100 raises each year they continue to work for the authority.
With the changes, Lynch is confident the ambulance authority will have a bright future.
"We think being a paramedic is a more attractive position now," Lynch saidContact writer Matthew Thompson at email@example.com.