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October 25, 2021

Salisbury city manager describes short-term solutions for firefighter pay concerns

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — City Manager Lane Bailey on Tuesday told council members preliminary data from a citywide salary study will be used for short-term solutions over pay and benefits in the Salisbury Fire Department.

The city signed a contract with The MAPS Group on Aug. 25 for $40,000 to begin a salary study in November that will take around five months to complete. Once complete, the study should paint a more thorough assessment of the necessary salaries for all ranks and positions across the city’s departments.

On July 24, city leaders received a letter from Salisbury firefighters that called on officials to raise the level of pay and benefits for fire personnel to remain competitive with surrounding markets. At the subsequent city council meeting on Aug. 3, Bailey informed council members of a 10% vacancy rate across all city departments and discussed moving forward with a salary study. Earlier this month, Caleb Renner, president of the Salisbury Professional Firefighters Union, told the Post many fire personnel agree a salary study is the best option to more accurately adjust wages, but a “short-term show of good faith” would be more likely to keep some members around for the eventual findings of the study as some were already seeking a move to other departments.

Bailey is now suggesting using preliminary data from the study to consider short-term pay solutions for fire personnel before the full study is completed. He anticipates that data to be provided in about a month.

Additionally, Bailey said The MAPS Group is looking into ways to add part-time hours to eliminate mandatory overtime shifts. Bailey said working overtime shifts is voluntary 80% of the time, but firefighters know weeks in advance whether they’ll be required to work an overtime shift — a system formed by SFD. Bailey said the city is also looking into eliminating the nepotism clause for employment as another short-term solution.

Bailey said City Attorney Graham Corriher is working to formulate an appropriate resolution to be voted on by council members that would allow fire personnel to take a vote to opt back into the Social Security program. Because of a decision made decades ago, firefighters in Salisbury do not pay into the Social Security program. Those who may have paid the 10 necessary quarters into the Social Security program in addition to their career as a firefighter are often penalized and don’t receive their full benefits because of the federal Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision.

The city has also considered providing a 457 plan, an IRS-sanctioned employee retirement plan offered by state and local government agencies along with some nonprofit employers. That plan offers a greater return on investment, Bailey says, but it doesn’t include the spousal death benefits provided to Social Security recipients. A vote from fire personnel directly “is imperative,” he said.

Bailey said he will return to council with a resolution to grant SFD a 90-day period to vote on opting back into Social Security after obtaining more details about how many votes are needed. He is not certain whether all firefighters would need to opt-in if the vote passed or whether individuals can choose not to opt-in and contribute to a 457 plan instead. A total of 40 quarters, or 10 years, must be paid into Social Security before obtaining any of the program’s benefits.

SFD currently has four vacancies, and Bailey said interviews for those positions are ongoing.

In addition to SFD, vacancy concerns remain in the Salisbury Police Department, which reports 10 open positions, and Public Works, which has seven. Both departments received pay increases of 6.5% and 5% to 15%, respectively, in the 2021-22 budget, in addition to 2% cost-of-living adjustments for all employees and an increase to 4% from the city on matches to 401(k) accounts, except for sworn officers who receive 5% by law.

There are six vacancies in the Finance Department, but Bailey said newly hired Finance Director Wade Furches is making some changes to the department that may help that vacancy rate. There are a total of 38 vacancies of the city’s more than 400 positions.

During the public comment period, Debra Chirico said Salisbury firefighters are not paid a living wage and must work additional jobs to pay rent and save for future retirement. Chirico said she won’t support any council members who don’t support a pay raise for firefighters.

“We value firefighters in name, but in name only,” Chirico said. “Thanking them for their service does not pay their bills. Dropping off donuts is meaningful from the community, but it’s condescending from the city.”

Earlier in the meeting, council members approved the allocation of a $110,909 grant from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters program to assist with purchasing 20 thermal imaging cameras, which the department applied for in February. The city is responsible for a 10% contribution of $11,091, which was set aside in the Salisbury Fire Department’s 2021-22 budget.

Following his vote, council member Brian Miller said he disagreed with the concern that council members haven’t supported the needs of firefighters because he’s voted in support of each need they’ve brought to city leaders throughout his 12 years on the council.

“Over 12 years, there’s got to be 40 or 50 different instances where we’ve supported the firefighters by helping with safety equipment and other things,” Miller said. “So I don’t agree with some of the comments that have been made about our lack of support for them. I just want to get that on the record. I’m in favor of this and have been for a long time.”

Mayor Karen Alexander concurred. Fire Chief Bob Parnell nodded during both of their statements.

Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins said she’s happy to see the city moving in the right direction for firefighters and their working conditions, adding that she “feels a lot better about it” now.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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