As a Raleigh firefighter, Aaron Parker ran into burning buildings, worked 24-hour shifts and juggled part-time jobs to provide for his wife and four kids.
He missed countless hours with them and sometimes relied on public assistance to get by.
But Parker, who made $43,734 a year in Raleigh, recently quit because he can no longer afford to live in the city he protected for eight years. He’s packing up his family and moving to Everett, Wash., where he will make about $56,000 as a certified building inspector in the Fire Marshal’s Office. And the office will likely boost his pay to $63,000 after a couple years on the job, he says.
“I would love to stay here. I love Raleigh,” said Parker, 33. But with what they’re paying us, it’s not feasible. You have to live 45 minutes to an hour away just to buy a house.”
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The Raleigh City Council recently approved merit raises of up to 3.5 percent for all city employees. But police and firefighters had asked for raises from 5 percent to 15 percent, saying they struggle to makes ends meet in jobs that can be physically and emotionally grueling.
An entry-level Raleigh firefighter earns a base pay of $33,654, while an entry-level police officer makes $35,309 – the lowest starting salaries among Wake County’s 12 municipalities, according to compensation data provided by the towns.
About 200 of Raleigh police officers and firefighters earn less than $40,000 a year, according to data provided by the city. About 52 police officers earn less than $38,000, and 64 firefighters earn less than $35,000 a year.
Morrisville, which has a population that is 1/20 the size of Raleigh and has 46 firefighters, pays the highest starting salary for firefighters in Wake County, with $38,407. Holly Springs, which is also significantly smaller than Raleigh and has 51 police officers, has the highest pay for new officers, with at least $42,719 a year.
This summer, City Council members asked Raleigh’s police officers and firefighters to be patient while they consider potential pay changes for all of the city’s roughly 4,000 employees.
City Manager Ruffin Hall said Raleigh has an outdated compensation structure that uses varying pay caps that limit how much employees can earn, regardless of their job performance. He has commissioned an in-depth compensation study that should be complete next spring and could lead to broad pay changes.
“This study is intending to look at the entire structure entirely and comprehensively,” Hall said. “The point of this is to do it right, to do it once and to figure out how to pay for it rather than trying to just do something quickly and not really address the issues.”
But police and fire leaders fear employees will leave for better-paying jobs in other cities and towns.
“If there’s not a significant raise over the next year, I think you’re going to see a mass exodus of people,” said Lt. Nick Rhodes of the Raleigh Fire Department. “They’ll have a lot less stress, take a lot less calls and make a lot more money.”
A Wake County resident needs to make $45,427 a year to adequately provide for a stay-at-home spouse and one child, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With two children, the number jumps to $50,500. Someone in Aaron Parker’s situation would need to make more than $56,500 a year.
The average cost of a home in the Triangle is $277,400.
The Parkers last year bought a home in East Raleigh, but now they are leaving it behind. Parker said his four children haven’t been able to participate in typical youth activities such as athletic programs, because his family can’t afford it.
For years, Parker also did landscaping work and had a part-time job at First Choice Medical Transport in Cary.
“After working for seven years, I could finally afford a house for my kids,” Parker said. “I didn’t want to move. I’m finally stable. But they made it so hard that I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Raleigh’s fire and police pay also lag behind North Carolina’s other large cities, although the difference is smaller.
Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem pay entry-level firefighters salaries that are within $204 of each other. The pay varies a bit more for police officers.
Charlotte, the largest city in the state, reports paying its entry-level firefighters $40,609 and its entry-level police officers $42,640.
City data show Raleigh’s more experienced public safety workers make significantly more than their less-experienced peers.
Since 2013, all full-time city of Raleigh employees with more than a year of experience have received annual performance-based raises of up to 3 percent.
Raleigh has 800 sworn police officers, about 500 of whom patrol the city. More than 260 are classified as senior officers who make an average of $53,775 a year. The city has 107 senior firefighters who make an average of $50,284 a year.
Police officers must work for the department six years and meet several performance criteria to become senior officers. Firefighters must perform well and have at least three years experience with Raleigh to achieve senior status.
About 770 of Raleigh’s 1,338 public safety employees – everyone who works in the police and fire departments, including administrators and assistants – earn more than $50,000 a year.
Although police and fire leaders have voiced concerns about employees leaving for better-paying jobs, city data show attrition rates have been mostly stable over the past five years.
The turnover rate among Raleigh police officers has been between 5 percent and 6 percent each year since 2011. An average of 32 officers left the department each year.
Among firefighters, the annual turnover rate has been between 4 percent and 5 percent since 2011. Last fiscal year, a five-year high of 31 firefighters left the department.
Rick Armstrong, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association, which represents about 520 officers, said the number of retirees has likely decreased and the number of officers leaving for better opportunities has increased.
If city leaders don’t act to increase pay, Armstrong said, Raleigh could feel the effects.
“If the pay’s not competitive ... we’ll have less to choose from,” Armstrong said of officers. “We’re asking police officers to do more and more. You want to have someone who’s educated, who’s competent, who’s had experience on the job and developed the skills they need to respond the way you want them to in emergencies.”
Rising cost of living
The pleas for increased pay for police officers and firefighters come as Raleigh and Wake County have both adopted what amounts to property tax increases each of the past three years.
With tax hikes and fee increases, the average Raleigh homeowner will pay an extra $129 in the coming year.
As home values rise, some firefighters say it’s tough to find housing they can afford.
Wake County’s property reappraisal last year showed that home values in downtown Raleigh increased by an average of 26 percent in the past eight years.
The City Council this year effectively raised the property tax rate by 1 cent per $100 in value to build 325 affordable-housing units over the next few months.
“We don’t want people to have to spend more than a third of their income on housing. Right now, we’ve got about 30,000 in the city that do that,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said last month. “You don’t want a city to become so overpriced that ... it hurts our job market.”
During budget talks last month, half of the City Council members said they were in favor of granting a one-time bonus to public safety employees. But other members, including McFarlane, said they wanted to follow the city manager’s recommendation and wait for the compensation study to be complete.
“It’s difficult to start pulling out pieces without a comprehensive look and understanding on what that impact is on everybody, which is why we’re doing that compensation study,” McFarlane said last month. “I know it’s frustrating to have to wait for it, but sometimes those decisions are best made in the context of the whole organization.”
Police and fire union leaders will likely have more leverage entering budget talks next spring, since the entire City Council will be up for re-election in October 2017.
But first-responder pay is unlikely to drastically affect the election, said Perry Woods, a longtime Raleigh resident and political adviser to some council members.
“Planning, managing and paying for growth is a primary function of Council and is consistently important to voters,” Woods said. “I’m sure Raleigh residents care that our first responders are compensated properly, and so do the Mayor and the Council. ... That said, I’m not sure it is an effective lobbying strategy to beat up those who say they agree with you, and have promised to act.”
College on hold
While public safety employees hope for bigger raises, some continue to work second and third jobs to get by.
Travis and Kelly Holland, who got married in 2014, are both Raleigh firefighters. Travis also works part time for the Knightdale and Middlesex fire departments.
Sometimes they go several days without seeing each other.
“We sometimes work 10 days where we’re gone for 24 hours at a time,” Travis said. “Right now, I’m so tired. When I get home, I just want to go to sleep.”
Kelly, 34, wrote a letter to the City Council explaining the couple’s situation.
Travis, 26, has been taking online college courses in hopes of earning a degree and qualifying for a pay bump from the city. But they have struggled to start a family, so Travis put his education on hold so they could pay for more fertility treatments.
“The doctors have told me to relax a little bit ...which is why Travis has done so much,” Kelly said. “They say stress has a lot to do with it, but when every month you’re trying to make sure your bills are paid, it puts a stress on your family.”
The Hollands say they will need to make more money, and have more free time, to raise a child.
“It’s to a point where I’m working every day and I’m getting burnt out,” Travis said.
“If things don’t get better, we’re going to have to do something,” Kelly said. Not earning more “just makes you feel like you’re not worth it.”
Jobs well done?
Raleigh’s public safety leaders point to a list of accomplishments and growing demands in their pleas for higher pay.
Raleigh’s fire department recently achieved the best possible score for response efficiency from the Insurance Service Office, which Fire Chief John McGrath says will lower fire insurance rates for local businesses.
“It will have direct effects on people’s insurance premiums,” McGrath said. “They’ll be more reasonable and cheaper because of it.”
McGrath said he supports his employees who worry about pay but has faith city leaders will come through for them next year.
“I sound like a gushing parent, but I work with the best people in the world,” he said. “I don’t disagree with how they feel.”
The police department reported that it had closed 100 percent of its murder cases, 29.6 percent of robberies, 15 percent of burglaries and 17 percent of car thefts last fiscal year. Those rates were better than the national average for 2013, the most recent year available from FBI data.
The department also launched a new squad to respond to emerging crime trends, as well as a new in-school education program to replace DARE, a long-established anti-drug effort.
In a statement, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said officers “continue to serve with resolute dedication and profound distinction” while they wait for the city to complete its compensation study.
“It’s important to remember that many things have an effect on the morale of police officers across the nation right now,” Deck-Brown said. “In addition to what they are being paid, the perspectives of officers is understandably influenced by other factors, including the societal climate in which they are functioning on a given day, as they meet the many challenges that are inherent to their profession.”
Morale among Raleigh officers is declining, said Rick Armstrong, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association.
“They’re being held to a higher standard and being criticized by activists,” Armstrong said. “Meanwhile, they’re not getting the raises they need. They’re being hit by both sides.”
Some community activists have called for police reforms after a senior officer shot and killed a 24-year-old black man in Southeast Raleigh on Feb. 29.
Officer D.C. Twiddy said Akiel Denkins, who was wanted for failing to appear in court on an outstanding felony drug charge, reached for a gun during a foot chase. The Wake County District Attorney cleared Twiddy of any criminal wrongdoing.
In its list of accomplishments over the past year, the police departments noted its “efficient” handling of local protests and marches.
“There’s definitely more stress on the police officers dealing with these incidents that are occurring,” Armstrong said.
Staff writer Paul A. Specht