Winston-Salem leaders vow to close pay gap with neighboring cities

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Police and firefighters listen to Councilman Dan Besse.
Police and firefighters listen to Councilman Dan Besse.

by Jordan Green

Winston-Salem elected officials signal determination to bring pay up for police and firefighters, who earn significantly less than their counterparts in Greensboro and High Point.

Watching the public safety committee meeting on remote feed from the overflow room on Monday evening, fire Battalion Chief Shirese Moore and Firefighter RF McMillan nodded knowingly as city officials talked about the dramatic gap in pay between Winston-Salem and neighboring Triad cities, and the department’s difficulty in retaining talented employees.

“We’ve lost several firefighters from past rookie schools,” McMillan said. “We’ve lost several young firefighters. We’ve had a lot of turnover. We’ve also lost guys with tenure. We’re talking about people with eight years or more of experience.

“Many of us work another job so everything can come together,” he added. “Slowly the economy has turned around. It makes it hard to stay when you know there are other opportunities.”

It’s easy to understand why.

Starting pay for Winston-Salem firefighters is 9 percent less than the average for other Triad governments — including the cities of Greensboro and High Point, the town of Kernersville, and Forsyth and Guilford counties — according to a study released by the Winston-Salem Human Resources Department last week. Firefighter trainees in Winston-Salem earn 10 percent less than their counterparts. The stats aren’t much better for police officers and police trainees — 6 percent and 10 percent respectively.

“A lot of the other jurisdictions have mechanisms for moving their salaries up even when there’s no market increase because they have steps and that sort of thing,” Human Resources Director Carmen Caruth told city council members on Monday. “Our salaries only move when there’s merit raises.”

While the gap for starting firefighters and police officers in Winston-Salem is bad enough, it only widens over time, Caruth’s study reveals.

Pay for Winston-Salem firefighters increases by 16 percent over their first five years on the job, while their counterparts in Kernersville see their pay go up 27 percent through annual adjustments to bring salaries up to market rate. High Point firefighters’ salaries increase by 28 percent through a program called “Career Ladder” that incentivizes them to get new certifications. The “Step Pay Plan” in Greensboro results in average salary growth of 21 percent. The picture is similar for police officers.

The study indicates that the city of Winston-Salem loses 12 percent of its police officers and 10 percent of its firefighters every three years because of job opportunities, family relocation and other voluntary reasons.

The study estimates that it could cost the city as much as $2.3 million to close the salary gap in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Council members expressed determination to address the disparity, and at least two indicated they would consider a tax increase to pay for it.

“Citizens need to understand that times have changed, and we haven’t kept up with the change,” said Councilwoman Denise Adams, who represents the North Ward. “And now we’re struggling to keep the best of the best, whose training we have already paid for.”

Councilman Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, urged his colleagues to considering implementing pay increases in January, which could cost the city anywhere from $309,750 to $929,250.

Winston-Salem firefighters know their colleagues in neighboring cities well, McMillan said. Moore, who was born and raised in Winston-Salem, said that while she personally has no interest in changing jobs, it isn’t that hard to commute to High Point or Greensboro.

“From a department standpoint,” McMillan said, “as you train people, as far as the camaraderie, getting on an apparatus and working together to get the job done….”

Moore finished his sentence: “… You lose that cohesion.”