Union officials for the police and fire departments in Raleigh say morale in the ranks has taken a hit because of “low pay and benefits” for sworn-in officers and firefighters.
Before the City Council held a public meeting Tuesday night to field comments about the proposed city budget, the Raleigh Police Protective Association and the Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association held a news conference outside City Hall to announce that they would jointly submit proposals calling for a 15 percent pay increase over the next two years for public safety employees.
“I can tell you that this particular issue has united our workforce more than anything since a pay raise study in the late 1990s,” Keith Wilder, a firefighters association spokesman, said Tuesday afternoon. That study resulted in the city giving firefighters and police an across the board 22.5 percent pay raise.
During the news conference, Wilder painted a dire financial picture for the city’s firefighter corps.
“Tonight, I know of at least seven Raleigh firefighters receiving public assistance,” he said. “The question I have is why does any Raleigh firefighter with no extraordinary family situations even qualify for public assistance?”
Wilder said not only is the Raleigh Fire Department’s starting pay far lower than wages paid to firefighters in cities of comparative size – such as Omaha, Neb., and Colorado Springs, Colo. – it’s also lower than smaller, rural departments here in Wake County.
“Some of them have starting pay that’s as much as $4,000 higher,” he said.
Rick Armstrong, a spokesman with the police protective association, said City Manager Ruffin Hall’s proposed budget includes a 3 percent to 3.5 percent increase for public safety employees. The police association is requesting a 5 percent to 10 percent increase for all police officers.
“We are in complete disagreement with what the city manager proposes,” Armstrong said.
Wilder says the money for public safety employee salary increases is available in the city’s “general fund’s unreserved accounts that have grown from $92 million to $191 million over the last seven years alone.”
Armstrong echoed some of Wilder’s concerns: The police department’s starting salary of a little more than $34,400 a year is well behind some smaller departments in Wake County, including Knightdale, Fuquay-Varina and Wake Forest.
Armstrong said the police received merit raises for the past six or seven years, but said that officers have not received a cost of living increase since the 2008 recession.
“The merit raises have been minimal, and with overall health insurance increases, our officers are taking home less money,” he said.
Wilder said his starting salary in 1986 when he started as a Raleigh firefighter was $16,116, which adjusted for inflation is the equivalent of $35,188 today. That’s $2,515 more than the current starting firefighter salary of $32,673.
“Thirty years have passed,” he said. “Firefighter pay has barely doubled, and it has 7.7 percent less buying power than it had in 1986.”