WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Dozens of Wilmington police officers and firefighters rallied outside of City Hall Tuesday demanding better wages and better benefits.
The emergency personnel picketed Tuesday night's city council meeting. The public servants said city leaders have not made their salaries a priority, and the lack of action is costing taxpayers more in the long run.
Officers noted the amount of turnover is a major problem, and that tax payers are paying for the departments to train people just for them to leave.
The starting salary for a firefighter in the City of Wilmington is about $28,000 and for police it's $34,000. If the personnel go to a city of a comparable size like Greenville, North Carolina, firefighters make at least $33,000 starting out and police in Greenville start at $40,000.
Officers also said more experienced officers aren't getting the increases in their pay that they deserve. Wilmington firefighter Shannon Provencher said they are not looking for a huge salary.
"Nobody gets in the fire business expecting to get rich. We do this job, because we like to serve our community, we like to give back," Provencher said. "We just want a fair living wage."
City leaders say they plan to put more money into next year's budget for police and fire. On Monday, during City Council's Budget Work session, the fire and police departments were getting a combined $1,390,026, but that money isn't just for pay it's also for equipment and other projects for both departments. The actual amount for pay increases is still being worked out.
In November city council changed their workers' compensation plan. Previously, workers were paid 100% of their pay for the first seven days they missed. But in November, city council approved a policy which eliminated that benefit and others because their policy was more generous than state standards.
Police and firefighters said that if they are hurt, they now have to worry about supporting themselves and their families. Wilmington police officer Thomas Tilmon said the emergency personnel were outside to send city leaders the message that these benefits are important to them.
"This is the last place in the world we want to be. I don't want to be out here at City Hall carrying picket signs; I don't want to do this," Tilmon said. "I'd rather be at home with my family, you know my days off are precious, few and far between. This is the last place I want to be on my day off."
The City explained at the time that these changes weren't about money, instead just a way to encourage these employees to return to work sooner.
Emergency personnel at the rally said that they want to work with city leaders to solve these problems.
Inside the city council chambers
The collection of picketers filed into City Hall for Tuesday night's Wilmington City Council meeting.
Tilmon spoke before the council, explaining to the elected officials that he and his colleagues needed higher wages and a better worker's compensation policy.
The police sergeant reiterated the notion that the department was losing experienced veteran employees due to low pay. He said competitive pay was crucial in keeping those employees on staff. The crowd filled with firefighters and police officers erupted in applause after Tilmon concluded his speech.
"The presentation was professional. They're speaking from their heart and we're working on it," said Police Chief Ralph Evangelous. "I hope within the next couple weeks we're going to have a package pulled together."
Officials from the Wilmington Fire Department said they also hope the employees get the compensation they deserve.
"Every little bit helps, but at the same time I think our folks need more than just a little bit," explained Wilmington Fire Department Battalion Chief David Hines.
The Wilmington City Council did not respond to the speech or address the picketers during Tuesday's meeting.