WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Employee retention and competitive wages were some of the common themes at Monday’s Sedgwick County budget hearings. Commissioners will determine next year’s budget for all county departments.

Emergency Communications, EMS, Fire District 1, Regional Forensic Science Center, Emergency Management, Corrections and MABCD gave budget presentations Monday afternoon. The head of RFSC testified that it’s struggling to meet accreditation requirements and said 50% of its staff leave every two years. RFSC also reported that deaths in Sedgwick County are increasing, pointing to a rise in drug overdoses, specifically Fentanyl overdoses.

Emergency Communications reports 31 job openings as of Monday. The director Elora Forshee said the majority of them are call-takers and dispatchers.

“Resignations are steady,” said Forshee. “I feel like I have an obligation to my staff and to the community to ensure that the staff that we have are adequately trained, and training doesn’t stop leaving the academy, so yes, you are correct that we have those positions that need to be filled.”

While Forshee didn’t specifically request that commissioners raise the starting salaries of employees, she did request the county add a new position called the “911 training facilitator.”

“Adding another position on your books, where we don’t have people to fill the open positions now, does that really benefit anything,” asked Commissioner David Dennis.

“Well again, I think that having our staff trained and able to respond to the needs of the community is beneficial,” said Forshee. “So while I’ll lose one person out of operations to go into that training position, I think that the benefit of having that person available to train is would speak to why we would do it.”

EMS is also dealing with a worker shortage as it reported 46 job openings, including nine open paramedics positions.

“We are a few EMTs short right now,” said Major Kevin Lanterman, interim EMS director. “We do have some that are going through an academy right now that will fill those positions, but getting the paramedics is still our major goal.”

Lanterman also acknowledged the county needed to do a better job recruiting more diverse employees, which is why he’s requesting the county create a new layperson for the EMT training program.

“This allows us to also, with diversity and things like that, get into those neighborhoods that individuals would not have an opportunity to get into this profession and get them started,” said Lanterman.

During Fire District 1’s presentation, the theme was not only keeping wages competitive but also becoming more efficient with fire services. There are four vacancies within the department, and it plans to have a fire academy in the fall.

Deputy Fire Chief Brad Crisp explained that Topeka, Lawrence, Wichita, and Derby all have higher starting salaries for new firefighters when you compare them to Sedgwick County District 1. Some commissioners voiced concerns over high overtime costs, as well as some arguing that the county is “incentivizing” surrounding communities to convert to an all-volunteer fire department.

“They’re getting our service free, and I’ve said it over and over again that is not fair to the people who pay 16, 17,18 mils for fire protection when we show up to all of these small communities for free,” added Dennis, who was advocating for step raises for firefighters.

“We’re not solving this efficiency issue, and we really need to have a conversation,” said Commissioner Jim Howell. “I’m not upset at you at all, Chief Crisp. I’m just concerned we’re not making progress, and right now, the firefighters, I love them. I want them to be rewarded for the work. When you have this much over time, that money could be spread out in salary, for example, the number of hours they do work, they can have more money in their paycheck, but we’re using the money on overtime. So we’re paying nine people that actually aren’t even there it’s going out to overtime.”

County budget hearings continue Tuesday with the Division of Administrative Services.