WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — It’s one of the most important public services a community can have, but the Wilmington Fire Department says their current pay rate is unsustainable and unacceptable.
Just days before the Wilmington City Council’s next budget meeting the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association sent a letter to each council member asking to be treated like valued assets to the community.
"The importance of firefighters to the community is I think vastly understated,” said Chuck Bower, president of the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association. “We're an inexpensive insurance policy there's no doubt about it. As a professional department what we bring to the citizens is difficult to even be measured in dollars and cents."
A letter sent to the Wilmington City Council by the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association is asking them to put a value on their service outlining current firefighter pay in comparison to pay in the police department.
"A starting firefighters hourly wage is $9.53, a starting police officer makes more than that at $15.57,” said Bower. “Would you honestly want to risk your life for $9.53 cents an hour because that's what they're asking Wilmington Firefighters to do."
Bower says that while making the Wilmington Fire Department the top paid department in the state is a dream he realizes that it is unrealistic, but he feels a state average salary is within reach. However, Bower says that past proposals of a 2% raise just won’t cut it.
"A 2% raise for me as an employee of the City of Wilmington who has been here for over 12 years, 2% means $.26 an hour to me,” said Bower. It just doesn't cover the bills, it doesn't cover the rising cost of health insurance, and it doesn't cover the rising cost of fuel. Our starting wage has got to go up to at least what our mid-point is and I'm saying probably $13 an hour. If we work towards average but then make a commitment to a long term sustainable continuation of growth and salaries if we can just maintain average or slightly above I think we would be pretty well off."
The letter sent by the Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association as sent to the Wilmington City Council is listed below:
This letter is written to you today to express some concerns and make a request of you. It is our hope to meet with all of you at some point, but time constraints of the budget process make this letter necessary. During Mayor Saffo’s State of the City Address there were many positive points. It was unfortunate that there was no mention of the employee’s sacrifices or monetary losses. There is no question that we are all thankful to have a job and we have done our part in getting through tough times. But, we find it extremely difficult to believe that City Council and Management of this City consider employees a valued asset. When discussing long term commitment to improvements for the City, incentives to businesses, the film industry and substantial growth of the unreserved fund balance, we wonder where we fit into the plan.
In short, we are talking about compensation, benefits and the lack of commitment by Management and Council to develop a long term solution. In the past twelve years, studies conducted externally and internally by the City provide consistent results. Executive salaries are well above average and rank and file employees are below average or last in comparable markets. It is our firm belief that Department heads have been consistent in their attempts to inform the City Manager of the need for action. But there seems to be a lack of conviction to fully apprise you of the situation. Simply “looking into it” or requesting another study will not translate to any real action. There are past pay studies information available to you, and plenty of internal documents providing comparisons in pay. We are reaching a critical mass, if there is not a committed long term funding solution for Firefighter compensation, we will forever be in last place. A significant problem for you, but one that needs attention. While top pay or above average would be nice, we think it is a reasonable assumption that Firefighters would be satisfied with average salaries. Not below average or last.
In a City that tries so very hard to be tops in tourism, business climate and quality of life, it seems disingenuous to call Firefighters a valued asset and keep salaries among the lowest of comparable Cities. When are you going to seriously invest in those of us that have committed to making a career out of the City of Wilmington?
In the particular case of our Department (Fire), the previous administration’s series of poor decisions and lack of action led to a stagnation in salaries. Lack of adherence to the City’s own Personnel Policy #2, section III regarding periodic review of compensation, also compounded the problem. Additionally, not fully funding actual recommendations of the last pay study struck a heavy blow. As an example of the problems we are experiencing, ten years ago we had a $600.00 separation in starting salaries from the Police Department, now it’s $6000.00. There is something very wrong with this salary gap. With that in mind, we are not pleading a case for all City employees, we represent the rank and file Firefighters of the City of Wilmington and we need to be given some serious consideration. Pay parity with the Police Department and full restoration of deferred compensation would be a start.
In our research, other comparable municipalities have dealt with this very problem incrementally but consistently, so as not to devastate the budget. We ask that you consider the same tactic. Identify the lowest salaries and commit to funding and timeline for correction. Each pay classification can be corrected this way and minimize the impact on the budget. Surely we have the staff and resources to create and implement such a plan. At this point, the last study by the Waters Consulting Group could be revisited, and the same formulas applied. If it’s determined there has to be a study, our organization can provide analysis of Firefighter pay, at no cost to the City. That might be oversimplification, but the point is we have the information and it is consistent with past and current studies. We need a long term funding solution and commitment from Management and City Council. With that being said, we fully understand that expansion in the budget would probably affect the taxpayers in the form of higher taxes. A decision that needs to be made unless a more creative solution can be found.
A recent advertisement in our newspaper, two full pages, by a large local real estate company exclaimed that their sales were up 33% from last year. Sales tax revenues are at or near the same levels as 10 years ago. Housing starts are up and businesses are trying to relocate or expand here. The City’s own news letter heralds the strength of the City’s finances including the substantial recovery of the City’s savings account. Things are looking up and we would like to be foremost in your minds as you consider this year’s budget.
The level of commitment and professionalism that you receive from our Firefighters has led to consistently high rates of citizen satisfaction, a 98% satisfaction rate. With each Firefighter you get; Firefighter II, EMT-B, Hazardous Materials Operations, Rescue Tech., Water Rescue, Driver/Operator, Car seat Tech., Shipboard Firefighter. Additionally, we have our daily duties of building and grounds maintenance, equipment checks and responding to calls for emergency service. As time goes by, more certifications are required, advanced education is becoming a requirement, all with no corresponding incentives or increased pay. The taxpaying Citizens of this community expect and receive a high level of professionalism from our Fire Department. They receive that at bargain basement prices. Although we would like top shelf compensation, getting us on a middle shelf in the light of day is a fine start. We are professionals, please compensate us accordingly.
In closing, we want to thank you for taking the time to hear or read our concerns. Your path is a difficult one and you have served this community well in difficult times. We just ask that you please make a commitment to those of us that make City Public Safety the success that it is.
Chuck Bower, President
Scott Hewett, 1st Vice President
Shannon Provencher, 2nd Vice President
Chris Chadwick, Treasurer
Norm Hinkle, Secretary
Wilmington Professional Firefighters Association