Pelham council tackles firefighter incentive pay

The Pelham City Council called a special meeting Thursday to discuss ongoing problems with a 1994 ordinance regarding education pay incentives for city employees.

At the advice of City Attorney Frank “Butch” Ellis, Mayor Don Murphy in March suspended 10 percent pay increases for six firefighters who earned bachelor’s degrees from an unaccredited distance learning institution, Warren National University, formerly Kennedy-Western University, based in Wyoming. According to the ordinance, any full-time employee who has received a four-year degree in a job-related area from an accredited college, university or professional school is eligible for the incentive.

“I have an obligation as mayor to look after people’s money, and that’s an obligation I take very seriously,” Murphy said. “I don’t have an ax to grind with anybody. We need to clarify the requirements and this council needs to straighten that out.”

Ken Camp, one of the six firefighters, spoke before the council on the group’s behalf, and asked the incentive be reinstated. Camp said the city’s education committee and previous administration approved then Kennedy-Western University before he and his colleagues pursued their degrees.

“The university was never in question,” Camp said. “There was never any mention of accreditation, nor was it an issue.”

Camp and others enrolled at KWU at the suggestion of former Pelham Fire Chief Gary Waters, who also received his bachelor’s degree there. Waters said he learned about KWU through the U.S. Army Department of Education.

Camp had been receiving his incentive for more than 10 years before it was suspended. He said 10 percent may be insignificant to most, “but for us it may be a car payment or groceries for a month.”

The question of WNU’s accreditation status has been a focus of debate. WNU was registered with the Wyoming Department of Education, which allowed the school to legally conduct business in the state. However, WNU was never approved by an accreditation organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, said Councilwoman Teresa Nichols.

“When they looked at the things they had to do, they chose not to become accredited,” Nichols said.

As of March 31, WNU ceased operation, according to its Web site.

Nichols apologized to the firefighters, saying they “were led astray in the advice to get an unaccredited degree.” She advised the men review their transcripts with an accredited institution to determine whether they can finish their degrees there.

The council took no official action, and will meet June 1 at their regular work session to discuss the issue further.