Raising firefighter pay may mean tax increases, Council says

HEROES IN RED: Asheville firefighter Christian Jurkowski holds his daughter while sharing that he received second-degree burns when responding to a house fire. Jurkowski said he makes $17. 52 per hour. Photo by Caleb Johnson

The May 28 Asheville City Council meeting reached capacity in the Council’s chambers and overflow room as dozens of Asheville firefighters and other community members came to advocate for increases to city employee pay during the public hearing on the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2024-25.

City Manager Debra Campbell’s $249.6 million proposed budget, which was presented earlier this month, included funding for seven new community responder positions, expansion of the Asheville Police Department’s drone program and investments in the city’s water infrastructure and staff.

But city employee compensation, particularly among Asheville’s firefighters, has dominated budget discussions. Employee pay remains the city’s largest expense at roughly 40% of the city’s overall expenditures. 

The proposed budget includes a 4.11% pay raise for all permanent city employees, which would bring those employees who work a 40-hour week up to the “pledged” living wage rate of $19 per hour, as calculated by Just Economics of Western North Carolina. The pledged rate allows employers to be certified as offering a living wage while committing to annual increases toward the full 2024 rate of $22.10 per hour. The living wage is considered the minimum that a single person working full time in Buncombe County needs to make to afford basic expenses.

But many employees who work beyond the typical workweek — including Asheville firefighters — would earn far less than the pledged rate, even with the proposed 4.11% wage increase. Starting Asheville Fire Department workers currently earn $46,256 annually, or $22.24 an hour based on a 40-hour schedule. But the job requires that Fire Department workers put in a 56-hour workweek, which reduces their hourly starting pay to $15.88.

The crowd Tuesday night was inundated by a sea of red shirts to show support for increasing firefighter pay to a minimum of $18.25 per hour, or $53,144 based on a 56-hour workweek. 

Asheville firefighter Paige Rubino said that she makes $16.28 per hour after starting with the department in fall 2022. 

“I take great pride in serving as an Asheville firefighter, and it’s an honor to answer the call of those in need on every shift. I truly love what I do, but I would be lying if I said I was able to provide for myself and my son in the way that I hoped I would,” she said. “A fair and equitable salary isn’t just recognition of our vital service. It is the cornerstone of our ability to support families and invest back into the neighborhoods we protect.”

Firefighter Christian Jurkowski, who makes $17.52 an hour, emphasized the physical danger and mental toll that firefighters face by detailing his personal experience of falling through the floor of a burning building while responding to a call.

“When I was down there and looked around and everything around there was on fire, I saw my daughter’s face. And I was met with the opportunity — I am either going to go home or I’m not going to go home,” Jurkowski said. “I’m not going to let my daughter wake up without a father. I tell you this in hopes to shine a light on the risks that we are willing to take each and every day for each and every one of you, and that we are still willing to take.”

All 10 people who spoke during public comment advocated for increases in employee pay for the Asheville Fire Department, Asheville Police Department and other city staff. 

After the hearing, several Council members said that they supported a higher wage increase for the city’s first responders and weighed several new budget scenarios to potentially offset the cost, including cutting other budget items or raising property taxes. 

“I am looking for the most aggressive pay increase we can give staff. I think we really need to raise all staff salaries — police, fire, public works, stormwater, water, you name it — because it is expensive to live in Asheville,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said. “And also, we need to keep up with other public government employers that are hiring the same positions.” 

Manheimer asserted that the city needed to find a consistent source of funding for the pay increases, noting that one-time allocations from the city’s general fund or cutting budget items would not solve the issue for next year when raises were again likely to be necessary. 

A city property tax increase could offer the additional revenue needed to cover the raises; however, Manheimer noted that residents could potentially experience several tax increases back to back if the proposed business improvement district and general obligation bonds are approved. In addition, Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder recommended a 2.55-cent property tax rate increase for county property owners for next fiscal year (which, if passed, would also affect city taxpayers). Buncombe County also is scheduled to conduct its planned property revaluation in 2025.

Council is expected to vote on the proposed budget at its next meeting on Tuesday, June 11. Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, City Attorney Brad Branham said that if Council needed more time to consider new budget configurations, it could pass a monthlong interim budget at the June 11 meeting, which would keep spending at current levels until the final budget and tax rate is adopted by Aug. 1. Or, Council could make budget adjustments ahead of the June 11 vote.

“As it is very common for adjustments to a manager’s proposed budget to be made all the way up to the final vote, I suspect that the City Council will be able to approve a final annual budget without the need to consider an interim one,” Branham said.


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11 thoughts on “Raising firefighter pay may mean tax increases, Council says

  1. Mike Rains

    Asheville will never be a “big” city, in spite (and largely because) of how hard it tries.

    Asheville has a grossly inadquate property tax base to be a big city. In spite of the rise of housing prices, there is just not enough taxable property within the city limits to spread out the tax burden for the revenue needed.

    If you look at the city limits on a map, it looks more like a bad Rorschach test image insstead of the big round blobs that most big city limits display.

    Healthy big cities were allowed to grow through annexation which was usuallly motivated by the city providing key services (police, fire, etc.) to the annexed area but also including water and sewer service at significantly reduced cost. Since Asheville was never allowed to charge more for water service outside the city limts, and because the MSD sanitary sewer system is a separte regional entity, the key motivation for outlying areas to accept annexation does not exist.

    “Because of how hard it tries (to act like a big city)” means that Asheville tries to copy te panoply of big city “fringe” functions such as urban forestry, sustainability, equity and inclusion, and community development.

    Furthermore, based on its tight tax base, Asehville has a much larger parks and recreation function than it can really afford. Asheville also continues to support costly public venues such as the Aston Clay Courts, the Golf Course, the Nature Museum and even the Civic Center, which as regional attractions, should really be funded by Buncombe County.

    Of course, tearing down the Vance Monument, putting bike lanes on Patton Avenue, installing another bathroom ( “Loo”) downtown and even providing $1M+ for the Reparations Commission, among many others, all seem very much like poor financial decisions regardless of what you may think about the cause. Does Asheville ever say no?

    One main result of these factors (constrained tax base and overly stretched city functions) is that the City cannot provide any meaningful salary differential for our most important/critical city functions such as Police, Fire, Public Works and the Water Deparment which is needed to attract and retain quality personnel for these core services

    At the very minimum, city leaders need to rethink whether all these nice-to-have extraneous functions and projects can really be justified with the revenue reality of this city.

    • Think about it

      You hit a number of items on the proverbial head… The Asheville government tries to make Asheville something that it is not and continually overspends and commits eggregious overreaches to try and achieve that fallacy. Unfortunately for the citizens, we become trapped in a wash of poorly planned, funded, or executed projects which all result in ridiculous taxation issues. For a community with a thriving and exploitable revenue base from tourism, the locals certainly are asked to bear a ridiculous amount of the financial burden without seeing basic services and infrastructures. Until Asheville and its elected leaders understand and separate the necessary from the ‘wants’ then nothing will change and in fact, it will get worse. This spend first and tax until the residents have nothing but lint in their pockets is a recipe for disaster. But, as always, instead of fully focusing on these failed fiscal policies, there is the subtle (or not so subtle) annexation jabs. Asheville needs to try and fix Asheville before they conquer and rope other municipalities into their web of botched expenditures and programs.

  2. Peirce

    I love how the idea of cutting spending in other areas when revenue is down is non existent topic. Bloated budget with covid funds and now they are not getting money for nothing they want to raise taxes at a time when expenses for citizens is at an all time high. Absolute poor leadership from our manager and council. You get everything you deserve Asheville. I didn’t vote for these people.

  3. Asheville native

    I agree that fire fighters, police and all city staff who are paid below the living wage should get a raise, but why should it be across the board? There are a lot of high paid administrators who this should not apply to. Other options for raising revenue for the city coffers could be the following:
    1) Charge an annual licensure fee for all properties that have vacation rentals or homestays.
    2) Eliminate the first hour free parking in the downtown city parking garages. Even though it is a wonderful perk for locals it is not fair that property owners subsidize tourist parking.
    3) Consider a minimal alcohol sales tax at restaurants and bars, although if most of it goes to the state and county it shouldn’t be done. In fact ask for more of a percentage of the sales tax the state gives the county and lobby to eliminate the requirement that some of Buncombe County’s sales tax is given to neighboring counties.
    4) Consolidate the city and county school districts so administration, not teacher, costs can be reduced. As a former community college teacher I saw first hand the difficulty of dealing with two different school districts.
    5) Consolidate the city and county parks department. Again there could be some savings in administrative costs.
    6) Before raising property tax see how much everyone’s property is re-evaluated for because that in itself is a property tax increase.

  4. gapple

    Why is it always “raise taxes”? Why not cut spending? As a family, we live within our means and sometimes hard choices have to be made. Start by eliminating all DEI positions. They serve no purpose other than draining the treasury and rabble rousing.

  5. Nostupid people

    Why can’t we get any body with half a brain that actually knows about management to join our new city council?

  6. MV

    Asheville needs to build some frugality muscles. Anyone running for office should be required to prove a basic level of financial literacy. This subject should be required in all of our schools, as well as for anyone on welfare or who asks for subsidies and or reparations checks. Not sure where to start? Read Mr. Money Mustache blog and books by David Bach.

  7. indy499

    For fun, do like I have and ask a council person what the attrition rate is in a given department or job category. You’ll get a blank look.

    How about start with proper salaries for police and fire personnel and then work thru the less meaningful parts of the budget?

  8. JT4784

    Emotional appeals aside, the facts show that firefighters and cops don’t have the highest risk factor anymore. Their unions have created elaborate and expensive protections to reduce physical harm, so that now other jobs are far more dangerous. Look at how many fat cops there are. They aren’t running down perps much anymore, folks. Speak up against public safety budget bloat. Electeds are cowards who don’t have the cajones to state the reality that most of those job hours are spent at the station, not saving lives.

    • WNC

      Tell us what percentage of the police are fat and what criteria you use for each category ?
      It is true paper work requires a lot of time, just ask the border patrol.

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