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Thu September 27, 2007
Welcome Home: The Long Commute
By Peter Biello & Catherine M. Welch
Wilmington, NC – This is how Jason Guy starts his day:
He wakes up at four o'clock in his Jacksonville home. He puts on his blue Police uniform and drives more than fifty miles to the Wilmington police department downtown. There he grabs his morning reports. And by six-thirty, he's responding to calls.
On this Monday morning, Corporal Guy drives to the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, through a neighborhood of million dollar homes. He says every Monday morning homeowners trip their own house alarms as they leave for work. He cruises with one eye on the road and the other on the houses, thinking of when he and his wife Yvonne looked for a house in Wilmington.
"We looked down here a couple of times, years ago though," he says, "but even then, to afford something that wasn't in the ghetto, it wasn't going to happen even downtown, with the historical district, you got a $400,000 right next door to a crack house. It's ridiculous."
Corporal Guy says on a salary of $37,000, he could find something in Wilmington, but nothing big enough to contain three kids. That's a job better suited for their quarter-million dollar house in Jacksonville.
"If I were to move to Wilmington now I'd have to take a huge cut in my standard of living."
After settling in Jacksonville, Yvonne started a job in New Bern. With two salaries, Guy says they can easily pay their $1,200 mortgage. But Guy says on his corporal's salary alone, such a payment would be difficult if not impossible.
Guy is not alone, says Wilmington Community Development Planner Emilie Swearingen. She says many Wilmington police officers, firefighters, nurses, medical technicians and university workers can't afford to live where they work.
"Sooner or later we're not going to have those individuals or we're going to have to somehow pay for transportation costs."
Swearingen says police officers deserve special consideration.
"When your emergency people are living that far away, to me that's difficult for the community," she says. "If you had to call them in on a really big emergency, they have a long way to travel."
So why not pay them more? In another office across the street from Swearingen's, Wilmington Human Resources Manager Al McKenzie has a long and a short answer. First the short answer.
"I believe the salary should be market driven."
That means the Wilmington pay scale should compete with that of other comparable cities in the region, not with the local housing market. The long answer involves asking three questions:
"Would we like to pay more? Yes. Do we need to pay more? Maybe. And can we afford to pay more? That's when the elected officials have to come in."
McKenzie says a pay study due next year will consider local housing costs, but the results won't guarantee satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous says low salaries play a significant role in the high turnover rate. And that turnover rate is taking its toll on the quality of work the officers do.
"It takes you 3 or 4 years to learn the job and become proficient in it. And we have a big turnover in that core group, 2 to about 6 or 7 years, which is really when you become effective."
Evangelous says almost three-quarters of his officers live outside the city limits. He says he's heard horror stories.
"I'll give an example. I have one officer who wanted to buy a house, couldn't afford anything around here, so he bought a house in Clinton. That's an hour drive, each way. Well he did it for about 3 years, then he just got burnt out, couldn't do it anymore and quit."
During the weekends, Corporal Guy spends time with his family. Like all parents, Guy says he wishes he could spend more time with his kids. But living an hour away from his job isn't all bad. Living in Jacksonville puts a comfortable distance between his family and people he has arrested. And his wife Yvonne says living among military families in Jacksonville provides perspective.
"People ask, don't you worry about him being a police officer?I just look around my neighborhood and people are being sent to Iraq. I am thankful to have a husband that's going to come home every night."
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