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Higher pay one way Highland Lakes fire, police can compete with Austin

Burnet Police Department

The Burnet City Council approved a new pay scale for Burnet Police Department patrol officers and Burnet Fire Department personnel to remain competitive with agencies in the Austin area. Other Highland Lakes emergency response departments deal with the same issue when recruiting and retaining staff. File photo

During a recent meeting, the Burnet City Council raised salaries for police and fire department staffs in an effort to retain personnel and recruit new members. The council hopes the move will make the city’s departments more competitive with those in the Austin area.

“The city of Burnet is committed to being one of the best public safety agencies in the Hill Country, which is one of the most desirable and fastest-growing regions in the country,” according to a city of Burnet media release announcing the new pay. 

Highland Lakes police, fire, and EMS leaders know they must keep up with Austin public safety departments, which often offer higher salaries.

“Recruiting in general has become more difficult across all sectors, but public safety recently has become more competitive,” said Burnet Police Chief Brian Lee. “The Austin area is extremely challenging for us to compete with due to many factors, and one of them we can impact is the pay.”

Job applicants have come to expect higher salaries.

“Hopefully, the pay increases bringing us more in line with (Austin) will help recruit in that larger pool of applicants,” Lee continued.

Under the new pay scale, Burnet patrol officers (not higher ranks) will earn from $58,700 to $71,000 annually. Burnet firefighters/paramedics will earn from $68,000 to $82,000. 

Even with the increases, Burnet still lags behind some Austin-area departments. In Cedar Park, police officers can earn from $62,388 as a probationary officer up to $91,547 with 18 years’ experience. 

Upon graduating from the Austin Police Department academy, an Austin officer initially earns $62,895 and then gets yearly raises that can bring their salary up to $102,112 after 16 years.

The Austin Fire Department pays a starting salary of $53,911 up to $92,983 with 25 years’ experience, according to the 2020-21 fiscal year pay scale.

In Georgetown, firefighters earn from $53,945 to $78,436 as of October 2021.

These ranges don’t reflect pay increases due to rank advancement or additional certifications. 

Pay is not the only lure to metropolitan departments. Opportunity is also a draw, said Marble Falls Fire Rescue Chief Russell Sander. 

“With those departments in the Austin area, and even San Antonio, they’re larger, but they’re also growing faster and have more chances for advancement,” he said. 

One Marble Falls firefighter left for a larger department and, within three months, advanced to a driver, something that likely would have taken longer in Marble Falls.

The Marble Falls department does have advancement opportunities, just not at the rate of larger departments that experience fast growth, which opens up new positions.

Burnet Police Chief Lee noted a similar concern.

“The Austin-area (police) agencies may have opportunities people may see as an advantage,” he said. “It may be the number of programs that they offer to do different things within the agency, so there is more variety.”

Lee said the BPD has begun adding programs “to increase the opportunities within the department for our employees as well.”

While both Sander and Lee acknowledged the challenges of being so close to Austin and San Antonio, neither have witnessed an exodus of staff for larger agencies. Lee has had only one officer leave for an agency to the east since he started last year, and Sander recently lost just a couple of firefighters.

One reason for the low turnover is the quality of life in the Highland Lakes and the departments’ investment in staff. 

“We invest a lot in our crews, as far as training and anyway we can help them continue to grow as professional firefighters,” Sander said. “But they also invest in us and the department. They are a part of the community, and they very much make this a great place to work.”

Marble Falls Fire Rescue operates on a 48-on, 96-off schedule in which a shift is on duty for 48 hours and then off the next four days. Sander said the Marble Falls department was one of the first in the state to adopt such a rotation.

The crews enjoy it.

“It helps them plan better for those days off,” he said. “And for those who do live outside the area, they have to drive in less.”

The Austin Fire Department currently operates on a 24-on, 48-off schedule. 

Another draw for Highland Lakes departments is the public support for the agencies and personnel. 

Lee described Burnet as a “small, tight-knit community who supports public safety along with strong council support and strong support from city leadership.”

That’s not always the case for metropolitan agencies.

“City leadership continues to work hard to improve upon what we already have and are supportive of maintaining a safe and secure community while looking after the welfare of our employees,” Lee said.

Sander sees a similar public attitude.

“This is just such a supportive community. That’s not something you find everywhere else,” he said. “I think that’s something our crew really appreciates.”