The town council here has agreed to commit more than $260,500 in the next budget year to increase the salaries and benefits for employees in the Garner Fire Department.
The changes would take effect July 1.
A recent pay study revealed 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.
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.
The starting salary for firefighters in Garner is $30,400, which is the starting rate for departments that have a significant portions of their budgets paid for by the county.
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 study recommends implementing a pay grade scale and setting the hiring rate for firefighters at $36,183. All of that would cost $348,008 per year, not including benefits.
There are currently 54 employees on the fire department’s staff. The positions include the fire chief, an executive assistant, a deputy chief, an assistant fire chief, fire battalion, fire captains, fire lieutenants and firefighters.
The low pay has resulted in high turnover rates in the department and low morale.
“If we were running a second-class fire department it would make it easy to justify (the lower starting rate),” Garner Fire Chief Matt Poole said, “but we are providing municipal fire protection to an 80 square-mile district that runs the third highest call volume in Wake County and the highest trained employees, and all we’re asking is that our pay reflect that.”
The initial thought by council members was to implement increases over three years to lower the impacts of the total cost. They also wanted to make sure the county pays its share, so the town wouldn’t bear all costs.
Instead, four out of five council members said they were in favor of implementing the pay increase over a two-year period taking on the full brunt of the increase in the first year.
Factoring in benefit increases, the total increase would cost the town $260,531.25 in the first year of implementation. And potentially the same amount in the second year.
The hope among council members was that the county would step up in the second year, if they couldn’t help out in the first year.
“I think we have been behind for long enough,” Buck Kennedy said. “It’s a wrong signal to send to them to stretch it out over three years. It says to them they aren’t really important.”
Council members Kathy Behringer, Ken Marshburn and Jackie Johns agreed.
“Our firefighters continue to work and do their job well, and I think we need to take what measures we can to bring it up to speed as quickly as we can,” Behringer said.
Council member Gra Singleton said he agreed that the increases were long overdue and the fire department employees need to be paid. However, Singleton said the town should not pay as much as $260,500 in two years without knowing whether the county would help out.
“What we should look at is a four-year plan,” he said. “We should take the three-year plan and implement it, and in year four recognize you’re going to bump them up again. So two to three percent every year.”
“This has got to be a longer plan to a one-year plan or two-year plan.”
If the county ends up paying its share of the increase, it would pay 46 percent of that and Garner would get that money back. That figure comes out to be $100,524.
But if the county does not pay its share, the council agreed it will take on the whole load in the first year.
Singleton didn’t seem optimistic about the county paying in the first year.
“The county is not going to pay their part in the first year unless a miracle happens,” he said.
Singleton warned council members of that and the fact that the fire department will have other needs in the future.
“It’s nice to be optimistic about a two-year plan, but until you know what that number is, that number is going to be a lot bigger than what you think it is,” Singleton said. “If the county doesn’t match the difference we could end up paying $700,000 to $800,000.”
The rest of the council said they understood but did not change their minds.
The decision was not voted on, so it is not official.
Will the county pay?
The county is also conducting its own pay study for all fire departments in the county.
County Commissioner Matt Calabria, who attended the council meeting, said the study will likely be completed by the county’s next budget cycle, which would be in line with the town’s timeline of when they want to implement the increases.
He said it is not finalized but he feels the county and town will be in a good place.
“I’m optimistic this will go a long way to alleviating the issues identified by town staff,” Calabria said. “I’m committed we can do the best we can for our fire fighters in Garner and the county.”
Calabria said he understands the issues have been brewing over time and he and current commissioners are committed to making it right.
“The county is on track to begin to address these issues in a timely manner,” Calabria said.
What the council has agreed on
▪ The town previously agreed in October to add one more holiday for firefighters. It will also pay a firefighter if he does not work on the holiday. Under the current system, firefighters scheduled to be off on holidays did not receive pay for that day.
That was not consistent with the majority of other departments, according to the study. The changes will take effect at the beginning of the new year and last until June 2016. It will cost the town about $14,000 to implement the extra holiday pay for that time period. The town will continue that in the next fiscal year.
▪ The town council agreed to increase firefighters salaries up to market value in a two-year period. The average employee will receive a 7.45 percent increase in the first year and will likely see a 7.45 percent increase in the second year. The increase will take effect on July 1.