COVID-19 vaccine traffic at Sullivan County Regional Health Department

Traffic backs up at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department in Blountville recently as area residents sought the COVID-19 vaccine.

BLOUNTVILLE — Last month, the Sullivan County Commission approved a resolution to increase pay for all employees of Sullivan County Emergency Medical Service by 10%.

In the weeks since, there’s been some wrangling back and forth about whether the commission had the authority to set the pay rate for EMS employees because the agency’s direct oversight falls under the office of the county mayor.

On Monday, Mayor Richard Venable announced he has directed the county’s payroll department to increase hourly pay for all EMS workers by 5%, retroactive to the first pay period of this calendar year.

Venable told the Times News in an interview prior to that announcement that he settled on the 5% figure after discussions with the county’s top finance officer. Venable said the EMS’ operating fund could not at this time sustain a 10% raise, but 5% can work.

“I am pleased, along with the County Commission, to be able to reward our dedicated employees in EMS for their outstanding departmental service during this difficult past year,” Venable said in a press release Monday afternoon.

Commissioner Mark Vance, the primary sponsor of that resolution calling for a 10% increase, told the Times News he is encouraged by Venable’s announcement and he sees it as a step in the right direction. Vance said the bottom line on the whole issue is getting Sullivan County EMS’ pay scale in line with agencies in surrounding areas.

“I know our EMS employees are going to be grateful for this,” Vance said. “And now we’ve gotten the attention of the County Commission and the mayor. I think we all will continue to work to fix the problem.”

EMS Director Gary Mayes echoed Vance’s comments. Mayes also serves as director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

Venable announced he has requested the county’s payroll department to work with Mayes to provide a one-time bonus to health department employees in recognition of “their tireless efforts since last spring in testing and vaccinating our citizens for COVID-19. These employees at every level have distinguished themselves in above and beyond performance of their duties.”

“Our employees are extremely grateful for the recognition and support from the County Commission and the mayor’s office,” Mayes said of the pay raise for EMS workers and bonus for health department employees.

Mayes said the one-time bonuses will be $600 for each part-time employee of the health department and $1,200 for each full-time employee of the department.

The money for the bonuses will come from the health department’s existing budget.

Venable pointed out other investments the County Commission has approved to improve services provided by Sullivan County EMS.

“I am also proud that the County Commission has funded the construction and renovation of four new facilities, costing over $4.5 million which provides the first fully EMS-dedicated facilities in the history of the county. Further, the purchase of over $600,000 state-of-the-art stretchers will, according to some employees, lengthen their work life and prevent all-too-often back injuries in servicing our patients.”

Venable said he will encourage the County Commission to next focus on providing a pay raise to all county employees in the budget being developed for the county’s fiscal year that begins July 1.

County employees did not get a raise in the current budget.

“Unfortunately, as we prepared our 2020-21 budget last year, due to the uncertainties of the impact of COVID 19, we could not reasonably project a cost-of-living increase for our general fund employees for the first time in my service as county mayor.”

Venable said he, as chairman of the county’s Budget Committee, along with Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey, will recommend a cost-of-living adjustment and salary review as the first priority in setting the upcoming budget.

In the past, salaries have been considered at the end of that process.

During preliminary budget hearings Monday night by the commission’s Administrative and Executive committees, Bailey in fact began his presentations by urging commissioners to consider employee pay from the get-go.

“I want to thank all county employees for their dedication to their role in serving the public during this challenging time,” Venable said.