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EMS Deputy Chief Paul Tibbs reviews payroll documents on Thursday. The checks of several employees of Coffee County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) were significantly cut last month – with some employees receiving $400 less than they were owed. The mistake was due to internal transfers at the Coffee County Accounts and Budgets department, but it could have been avoided if a section of the county personnel policy had addressed EMS payroll, according to EMS officials.

The paychecks of several Coffee County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) employees were significantly cut during the last month, with some employees receiving $400 less than they were owed.

With personnel transfers within the Coffee County Accounts and Budgets department, the clerk handling EMS payroll in December didn’t have experience with the way EMS employees were supposed to be paid. But, according to Ambulance Authority Chairman Mark Kelly, the mistake could have been avoided if a section of the county personnel policy had addressed EMS payroll.

The ambulance authority had anticipated there could eventually be a problem if the county personnel manual continued to lack the appropriate information about the unique way EMS payroll should be handled. In fact, the authority had asked the Coffee County Compensation and Personnel Committee last year to address the issue –  to no avail.

The sheriff’s department payroll was also completed incorrectly, but that mistake was quickly fixed.  

 

Unpleasant surprise

Just before Christmas, on Friday, Dec. 21, the paychecks of all employees who had taken any paid vacation days during that pay period had been cut.

When they saw the discrepancy, EMS officials notified the accounts and budgets office there had been a mistake. However, not only were the checks not corrected, but two weeks later, when it was time to deliver compensation for the next pay period, the payroll information received by EMS officials showed the checks would be reduced again if not corrected before employees were paid.

Because of the unique way emergency medical employees are paid throughout the state, the ambulance authority was aware such issues were possible and several times had officially asked the compensation committee to include in the personnel policy information about the way EMS workers should be compensated.

 

Concerns expressed

Several EMS officials voiced their concerns during the meeting of the compensation and personnel committee on Wednesday.

“We need to have the manual reflect that [EMS payroll] is different,” Kelly said, noting he had requested the committee address the matter several times in the past.

“I brought it to this committee,” Kelly said. “I can’t make the committee put it on its agenda. I can only request every month that it gets addressed, and it’s been tabled. We provided all the information with every change that needs to be made to the personnel manual to this committee. I can tell you we have given this committee every piece of information we could.”

New committee members attending for the first time – Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin and newly elected commissioners Joey Hobbs and Ashley Kraft – had not heard this complaint previously; but the remaining members present – Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell, Commissioner Tim Stubblefield and Director of 911 Communications Center Diane Argraves – were familiar with the issue. 

Dr. Jay Trussler, a member of the ambulance authority, expressed his frustration with the mix up.

“We have made recommendations to this committee several times; we have submitted them in writing; the ambulance authority has had multiple meetings and extra work sessions,” Trussler said. “It didn’t even make it to the agenda of the compensation and personnel committee until November, and then it was decided not to be brought up.”

The ambulance authority was told there had been more pressing matters, said Trussler.

With EMS already experiencing staffing issues because of the lack of competitive compensation, the reduced paychecks have been particularly hurtful, said Trussler.

“Our medics work extremely hard,” Trussler said. “We are finally fully staffed for the first time in three years; the morale is up; we have bought new equipment; we have worked hard; and someone makes a unilateral decision to cut pay. I don’t care whose internal mistake it is, but I am tired of finding out that somebody, whoever it is, is going and pulling money, that has been earned, that’s promised. That way of [making payments to EMS employees] is done consistently throughout the state, that is legal and has survived multiple audits, and someone has the audacity to make those changes.”

This situation should have been avoided, said Trussler.

“At our last meeting of the ambulance authority we made a motion that was voted on unanimously that both the mayor and Chair [Tim] Stubblefield send us a letter to explain why, after all this time, the issue hasn’t been [addressed],” Trussler said. “So we will look forward to your formal response.”

During the Wednesday’s meeting, it was also discussed that Cordell had demanded Marianna Edinger, director of accounts and budgets, correct the mistake, but it had not been corrected, and the following payroll continued to cut the owed compensation to the EMS employees.

“I found out this morning the EMS payroll hasn’t been fixed,” Argraves said.

Members of the committee asked Cordell if there would be any disciplinary action taken, and Cordell said there would be.

All members agreed EMS employees should be compensated the correct way and information addressing how EMS payroll should be handled should be added to the county personnel manual as soon as possible.

Trussler demanded an official apology to EMS employees.

Cordell agreed and said he regretted the situation had occurred. He said he would do anything possible to compensate EMS employees before the end of the week.

“I sincerely apologize to all that were impacted,” Cordell said on Thursday.

Elena Cawley can be reached via email at ecawley@tullahomanews.com.