Wake County commissioners assured Garner town council members Monday increasing firefighters’ salaries and mending relationships between the two were top priorities.
The town council verbally agreed in November to commit more than $260,500 in the next budget year to increase the salaries and benefits for employees in the Garner Fire Department, whether the county helped or not.
But they hoped the county would help. Some on the council doubted whether that would happen because of the rocky relationship the two bodies have shared over the years.
Many of the county commissioners are new and expressed interest in working together. Garner’s town council has been together for eight years.
A pay study conducted over the summer revealed pay for the Garner Fire Department was about 15 percent behind other fire departments in the area similar to Garner’s. For the average firefighter, that means they are a little more than $6,000 in annual salary behind the market average.
“Our firefighters are not at living wage,” Mayor Pro-tem Kathy Behringer told commissoners. “It’s personal to us and close to us.”
Unlike many of the other municipal fire departments in the county, Garner’s fire department is an independent agency paid for with money from both the town and Wake County.
Historically, the county and the town have not seen eye to eye when figuring out how much of the department’s cost should be borne by each entity.
Garner pays roughly 54 percent of the fire department’s budget, while the county pays about 46 percent.
Garner Fire Department employees have not received a raise since 2008. Some longer-tenured firefighters were making the same salaries as firefighters who had been there only a short period of time. The study also found that 72 percent of the employees were between 0 and 5 percent of the minimum pay range.
The council has tried to address the department’s needs over the years, but they haven’t wanted to bear all the additional costs.
The county is conducting its own study for all the fire departments in the county. Deputy County Manager Johnna Rogers said the county plans to get those salaries up to market value this year.
“Whatever we do it’s got to be something that we can sustain through time within the constraint of the fire tax that we’ll set,” Rogers said. “There will be something in this budget that addresses both.”
County commissioners assured the council they plan to work with Garner. They talked through extending Garner’s ETJ in the area near South Garner High School, creating a better relationship with the school system and transportation plans.
“This is a priority for us,” County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said. “I think we all recognize the priority and seeing what we can do to get this done this year to make Garner happy.”