NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County’s 670 first responders will see an increase on their next paychecks as their employer implements an immediate pay raise, starting Tuesday.
County officials say the boost in compensation for 911 communications, fire rescue and sheriff’s office employees will help the agencies compete with other public safety organizations regionally. The raises were announced Monday morning during the board of commissioners meeting.
In the next fiscal year budget, taking effect this July, the remaining roughly 1,400 county employees are expected to see a market adjustment of about 8.6%. County manager Chris Coudriet explained that percentage is based on inflation and the consumer price index for the southeast U.S. As part of the upcoming budget adoption in June, commissioners will also be asked to approve an overall pay plan increase of 6.86%. It will raise the wages of the few employees making the county’s minimum from $15.30 to $16.35 per hour.
Leaders are vowing to do all this while also delivering on property tax cuts. New Hanover County already boasts the ninth-lowest tax rate of the state’s 100 counties, commissioner Rob Zapple pointed out to reporters after Monday’s meeting. Last summer, a majority of the board controversially passed a tax increase, in part to make its public school teachers the highest paid in North Carolina. Now, the board is looking to scale back on that decision.
“We’re not asking for compromise,” Coudriet told commissioners. “We have found a way to proceed now and also plan accordingly for the new fiscal year.”
The county’s human resources and finance offices conducted an analysis to determine what the current market demanded and how to fund the first responder pay immediately, Coudriet explained. It was able to identify $974,000 in unused funds to address the three emergency departments this week, as opposed to waiting until the start of the new fiscal year.
Coudriet explained the raises were possible due to growth in revenue collections and strong management of expenses.
“We’re also the regional hub of economic activity for southeastern North Carolina,” Coudriet said. “So sales taxes continue to perform very well, and there’s nothing in the forecast that suggests that the tax base will slump or that the economy is going to slump.”
Commissioner Zapple added, “The reality is: We live in a really prosperous county.”
The updated pay plan includes a 12.2% increase for sheriff’s office, detention center and 911 communications employees. Firefighter salaries will increase by 29.89%, while apparatus operators and fire captains will see a rise of 23.71%. Salaries of fire battalion chief positions are going up by 17.2%.
That’s an average increase of $12,000 for firefighters and $6,500 for deputies, detention officers and 911 dispatchers.
The attractive wages are expected to help recruit and retain employees. Across the entire organization, the county’s vacancy rate is about 7.5%.
“That’s probably almost twice as good as a lot of our peers,” Coudriet said.
Sheriff Ed McMahon said his office’s retention is better than most law enforcement agencies and only a few deputy jobs are open. He emphasized those jobs should quickly be filled once the higher wages are advertised.
Fire rescue chief Donnie Hall said attrition has been low but the department has competed with other agencies for candidates. He expects the pay improvements to help. The 911 center is functioning with about a 10% vacancy rate but is constantly training and filling roles, director Hope Downs said.
“When someone does leave, we’re able to immediately fill those shoes and keep going,” Downs said.
That training is a cost to taxpayers, though, and often the responders end up taking their skills elsewhere for greater pay. Coudriet said confidently these increases will solve that turnover problem, which happens across all three divisions.
“There’s an extraordinary cost in developing that capacity, and we want to retain those men and women to keep serving our community,” Coudriet said. “Their employer of choice was us to begin with. It’s where most of them have started their career.”
New Hanover County recently selected a consultant for a pay and classification study that will likely inform more scale changes in fiscal year 2024.
The City of Wilmington is engaged in similar discussions about wages, job vacancies and livability. It is considering spending $7.5 million to alter its pay scale in the upcoming budget. Currently, firefighters are earning on average 14% below market pay, and the police make around 9% below. As of late last month, the city’s police department was facing 35 vacancies, and the fire department was juggling 13 vacancies.
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