Employee wages, retention, housing crunch headline retreat

by Cole Dittmer
Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Staff photo by Cole Dittmer 

Members of Wilmington City Council and Mayor Bill Saffo meet for the annual city council retreat at the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors offices on Friday, Nov. 22.  

With the overall pay for City of Wilmington employees at 9 percent behind the market average, Wilmington City Council discussed remedies for the issue at its annual retreat on Friday, Nov. 22. 

The city’s human resources director, Jeanne Sexton, said the departments lagging behind the market average the most are the police and fire departments. The worst margin was the Wilmington Fire Department, where the average pay is 17-21 percent below the market average, she said. 

Wilmington Fire Department Chief Buddy Martinette said the department’s low starting salary is the primary reason why more qualified firefighters do not apply with the city. 

“We get 400-500 applications for a firefighter position and then only 40 meet our qualifications,” Martinette said. “We would have a better pool to pick from if the minimum pay was higher.”

Overall the pay rates for Wilmington Police Department officers are behind the market average by 8.4 percent. WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous said it was not the starting pay that was creating issues for his department but the stratification of the pay grades.

“Pay ranges have not moved in 5-6 years and we have people that get bumped up but they don’t get a raise,” Evangelous said. “We hire an officer and they are really no good to us on their own for 3-4 years, so when you have these guys making about the same as a 10-year officer there is a real morale problem there.”

Although the starting salaries may be similar, Evangelous said a 10-year officer in Fayetteville makes significantly more money than a 10-year officer in Wilmington. 

Losing employees to surrounding municipalities has become a rising issue for the WPD and Sexton said the most common municipalities and organizations the city’s employees are moving to include Asheville, Greenville, Jacksonville, Durham, Fayetteville, New Hanover County, Brunswick County and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. 

To remedy the employee morale and retention issues Sexton recommended that the city continue to budget for 3-5 percent pay increases each year with half of those funds being used for across the board raises and the other half used for needed pay range adjustments.

Adapting to the changing housing trends and needs was another topic of discussion at city council’s retreat. 

City community services director Steve Harrell said by the year 2030, one in five people will be 60 or older and by the year 2050 the population of people 85 and older will have tripled to 20 million in the United States. As a result of the aging Baby Boomer population, Harrell said the large suburban neighborhoods with no walking access to goods and services will become less in demand, and that higher density housing would take over. 

“Less than 20 percent of Baby Boomers are financially prepared to pay for assisted living,” Harrell said. 

As a reaction to the trend, city development services director Glenn Harbeck recommended that city council make the creation of accessory housing easier within the city. Options for accessory housing include garage apartments, backyard cottages, infill townhomes, and in-law suites, and Harbeck said they would be critical in “gracefully increasing housing density.”

email cole@luminanews.com

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