Councilman Offers Twist to Firefighter Pay Issue - TribPapers

Councilman Offers Twist to Firefighter Pay Issue

Weaverville resident and former firefighter Butch Gudger speaks to council about firefighter pay. Photo by Clint Parker.

Weaverville – After a long meeting that included three public hearings, Weaverville Councilman Andrew Nagle dropped a twist to end the regular monthly meeting of the Weaverville Town Council Monday night (May 23).

Nagle, who had questioned the need to increase firefighters’ pay, suddenly changed his position.

Asking Mayor Patrick Fitzsimmons to “indulge” him for three minutes, Nagles said, “I got to think about this the last two and a half hours…I suggest our hire-in rate be $18 per hour…for all firemen and policemen and that we raise subsequent all firemen and policemen the same amount which is about 20 percent…I also suggest we raise the property tax for the town of Weaverville, so they can put their money where their mouth is.” Nagle’s proposal received applause from the firefighter supporters left in the room. 

Nagle was referring to all the residents and firefighters who came out during the meeting’s first public hearing, which was on the next fiscal year’s budget in support of raising firefighters’ pay. An issue that has, in one way or another, been the cause of 11 Weaverville Fire Department employees to leave or be fired since May of 2021. He suggested the tax rate be raised from 35 cents per $100 in property value to 40 cents. The rate would make Weaverville the second-highest municipal rate in Buncombe County behind Asheville’s nearly 43 cents per $100. 

“I will not vote for any budget that does not include that,” added Nagle. “There you go folks. We’ve heard you loud and clear. We’re embarrassed by what we pay our firemen.”

Fitzsimmons said, “Thank you for your suggestion Councilman Nagle.” Town Manager Selena Coffey also added her thanks and said, “One of the things, if this goes forward, we are going to have a huge compression problem with our entire pay scale. I can not tell the extent of that, but it will be more than a five-cent tax increase. So I’m happy to bring the information back to you, but it’s going to have a huge impact on our entire pay scale.” Coffey said by law that the compression issue must be addressed.

Public comment on the budget

Earlier in the meeting, several residents spoke on the issue of firefighter pay voicing their displeasure at the problem of low morale at the department. 

“Weaverville Fire Department is one of the oldest in the state,” explained Butch Gudger, who told the council about 50 years ago, after a tour in Vietnam, he came back and joined the fire department. “One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.” He said, at the time, the department was one of the 30 percent best in the state. “The fire department has a rich tradition, which was established and continues with pride. The Weaverville citizens deserve better protection, which comes from the support of the town council. In my opinion, the most important responsibility of each council member is to provide support to the agencies that protect our citizens.” 

Gudger was followed by former Weaverville Fire Chief Doug Simms, who added his support for the firefighters, one of whom is Simms’ son. “I think we’re going to lose one of the most respected fire chiefs in this county, Ted Williams…Council, you have a responsibility…to listen to your department heads on what is going on in these areas…Our taxpayers are a lot of them are here for the same reason we are. To make sure these guys get the pay time deserved they do have.” 

Barnardsville resident Scott Mullins, who is State President of the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association of North Carolina, spoke on the dangers of the job to firefighters themselves and their family, who he says has a higher risk of cancers. He told of recently helping to bury a fellow firefighter and Weaverville resident who died with cancer, Dwayne Fender. “We are also EMS providers. The first on the scene a lot of times before the police officers do. We get put in some terrible situations. We have to make critical decisions in highly stressful incidents. We also fight fires, mitigate hazardous materials crises. Your firefighters perform water rescues. I have been on scene with them numerous times. They’re some of the highest trained, most capable in Western North Carolina…Every single employee of your town makes $17.80 per hour except your firefighters.”

Speakers on a pay increase for firefighters spoke for about 30 minutes altogether, all expressing that an increase was in order. In the public hearing and before his statement at the end of the regular meeting, Councilman Nagle pointed out that the lowest-paid firefighter made $46,000 per year.

The council is set to look at the budget again in June on Tuesday the 21st, with a vote on the budget on Monday the 27th at the regular council meeting.

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