Lenoir's low pay fuels constant turnover
Lenoir police officers, firefighters, utility workers and other city employees have been leaving Lenoir for surrounding communities where the pay is higher for the same work, city officials say, but this year officials hope to be able to start to close the gap.
“It’s almost like we are a training ground so that they can go to these other departments,” Lenoir Fire Chief Ken Briscoe said. “We bring them in, we train them, educate them, then they are marketable to these other cities that do pay more.”
While utility, public works and other city employees are experiencing the same problem, it's highlighted at the police and fire departments because the training required for officers and firefighters costs the city thousands of dollars for each employee.
City Manager Lane Bailey said it has been a thorn in the city’s side since before he started his job in July 2004.
A new firefighter for Lenoir currently starts at $21,647, and a new police officer starts at $24,500.
In Morganton, an entry-level firefighter is hired at $32,041 and an entry-level police patrol officer at $33,643.
In Hickory, it’s $32,319 for a firefighter and $33,955 for a police patrol officer.
Police officers in Lenoir are eligible for a 3 percent raise after six months and another 5 percent raise after a year at the department. For firefighters, the first pay increase comes after qualifying as a Firefighter 2 after about six months of training. After another year, they get a pay increase when they begin advancing to other positions.
In 2013, four firefighters and two police officers left their jobs to take higher-paying positions in surrounding communities. Each year, the city loses five to 10 employees because of low pay alone, Assistant City Manager Danny Gilbert said.
Police Chief Scott Brown said that at a staff meeting before Christmas, an officer shared how he was making ends meet by going out to eat four nights a week to places where kids eat free, while his wife used coupons the rest of the week to keep the cost down.
Brown said he would like to see the pay for police patrol officers rise eventually to about $30,000, based on a study comparing Lenoir's pay to surrounding communities that was done in 2008 by The MAPS Group, a Cary-based consulting firm.
The city may be able to give employees at least a bump in pay within the year because of an earlier-than-expected completion of an obligation with the state's Local Government Retirement System.
Lenoir didn't join the system until 1995. At the time, it was the largest municipality in the state that had not yet joined the system.
When the city joined, its employees -- from new hires to people with more than 30 years of experience -- were immediately eligible under the program even though the city had yet to contribute to the system. But a schedule was set up for Lenoir to pay double into the system each year, an extra 6.54 percent of its salaries, to cover its employees' benefits until a total of $4.8 million was met.
The extra payments originally amounted to about $350,000 a year, and the process was expected to take until 2019, but Lenoir's payroll grew faster than projected, so the extra payments now amount to $620,000.
A couple years ago, Gilbert began looking into the city's obligation and found that Lenoir already had paid enough to cover its extra obligation. In a June 2012 meeting with state officials, city officials were told that 15 months of extra payment remained.
That should mean that the city now is fully paid into the retirement system and its annual total payment, which had been about $1.2 million, could be cut in half. The city hopes to get the official word this spring, when the state issues the annual retirement rates that municipalities must pay.
Gilbert said that the city's preliminary plans are to divert the saved money to salaries.
“(We’ll) still have challenges there, but it would go a good ways toward it,” Bailey said. “It won’t completely solve the problem.”