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Council OKs $2.1 million in another round of police raises, city manager says 4¢ property tax increase could be in the offing

City manager says Burlington faces ‘arms race’ for law enforcement officers

Burlington’s city council has deployed a veritable bunker-buster of pay raises in order to stem the tide of police officers who’ve been leaving the city for more lucrative positions in other jurisdictions.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the council agreed to increase each officer’s base salary from $46,500 to $55,411 – a jump of nearly $9,000 that’s expected to cost the city roughly $1.6 million a year.

On top of this across-the-board hike, the council also set aside another $500,000 a year to fund a pair of recurring, 2-percent raises for members of the city’s police force who exhibit satisfactory job performance. These additional raises, which will be doled out in March and November, will augment the 2.3-percent increase that officers already receive from the city each summer, bringing the total gain for each eligible officer to a maximum of 6.3 percent per year.

The council’s members ultimately approved these raises, with their cumulative price tag of $2.1 million, as part of a “consent agenda” of ostensibly non-controversial items that they unanimously adopted at the start of their meeting on Tuesday. Although the council approved all of these items without any sort of explanatory preamble, its members nevertheless devoted a fair bit of time to the police department’s proposed raises during a monthly work session that they convened a day earlier.

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During the council’s work session, Burlington’s city manager Craig Honeycutt laid out an ambitious plan to staunch an ongoing spate of defections from the city’s municipal police force. This plan included various forms of paid leave for police officers that, in some cases, were also extended to other city staff members. But the centerpiece of this plan was the aforementioned package of pay raises, which Honeycutt insisted the city needed to implement to keep other law enforcement agencies from poaching its veteran police officers.

“You can’t talk about benefits without also talking about pay,” the city manager went on to argue. “In all honesty, we’re in an arms race with counties, and with the surrounding cities as well.”

Burlington city manager Craig Honeycutt with police chief Brian Long in the background

“You can’t talk about benefits without also talking about pay. In all honesty, we’re in an arms race with counties, and with the surrounding cities as well.” – Burlington city manager Craig Honeycutt

War of attrition
The earth-shattering package of pay raises which Honeycutt went on to propose isn’t exactly the city’s first entry in this metaphorical arms race.

In early January, the council launched the equivalent of a shock and awe attack when it set aside nearly $1.3 million to increase the salary of every sworn officer and dispatcher at the city’s police department. With one fell swoop, this allocation added an extra $7,271 to every police officer’s wages as well as an additional $7,904 to the annual compensation of each dispatcher.

This measure nevertheless failed to stop the continued hemorrhaging of personnel at the city’s police department, city officials insist. Due, in part, to similarly-generous pay raises in other jurisdictions, the department has found itself increasingly short staffed in spite of the pay raises that the council extended in January.

Brian Long, Burlington’s chief of police, acknowledged that the severity of this staffing crunch has forced him to make some unpleasant decisions to ensure that he has enough qualified officers out on patrol.

Burlington police chief Brian Long

“The officers who’ve remained have carried a heavy load. I have had to pull [them] from other specialized divisions to put enough officers on the street.” – Burlington police chief Brian Long

“The officers who’ve remained have carried a heavy load,” he told the council during Monday’s work session. “I have had to pull [them] from other specialized divisions to put enough officers on the street.”

The failure of the raises in January to alleviate this crisis eventually compelled Long to suggest another approach to replenish his ranks. Earlier this fall, the city’s police chief informed the council that he had been mulling some “creative” benefits to help ease his agency’s personnel shortage without putting any additional stress on the city’s budget. Long’s plan was eventually picked up by Honeycutt, who went on to craft an even broader initiative in consultation with the city’s police chief.

 

City perks
The fruits of Long’s and Honeycutt’s labors were finally unveiled to the council at Monday night’s work session. By then, though, the plan that had begun as a recruitment and retention initiative for the city’s police force had mushroomed into a city-wide effort – albeit one that still orbited around the city’s police officers.

Long’s vision of “creative” benefits also remained part of the plan that he and Honeycutt shared with the council.

Among the items that they presented on Monday was a four-week block of “wellness leave” that they proposed to offer to veteran police officers in their 7th, 14th, and 21st years with the city. Long told the council that officers will have one year to avail themselves of this paid decompression period, which he characterized as a sustained break for the sake of their psychological wellbeing.

“It’s a use it or lose it program,” the police chief went on to explain. “There’s a lot of studies out there that talk about the survivability of a police career…and this is to take care of staff – to give them an opportunity to take care of themselves.”

This extended period of “me time” isn’t available to anyone outside the city’s police force. Even so, Honeycutt presented two other benefits that he said would be offered to all of the city’s full-time employees.

One staff-wide initiative is a six-week stretch of paid “parental leave” that Honeycutt suggested for any full-time staff member with at least a year under his or her belt.
The city manager also proposed additional sick leave for municipal employees who’ve accumulated 8, 15, and 25 years of experience.

Honeycutt added that both of these perks are already available in a number of other North Carolina cities and towns. He mentioned several Wake County communities that have adopted some form of extended sick leave, while the promise of parental leave has apparently been enshrined from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill. In either case, Honeycutt said that it would behoove Burlington to extend a comparable benefit to its own employees.

“We want to acknowledge the employees who stay with us and who are committed to our community,” he added, “and we believe that this will help with retention and recruitment for all city staff.”

 

Breaking out the big guns
The city’s administrators have gone on to incorporate all of these non-monetary proposals into the city’s benefits package. Meanwhile, the city manager needed the council’s formal blessing to implement the rest of his plan, which consisted of the aforementioned pay raises for the city’s police officers.

Honeycutt made no bones about the sheer scale of these increases when he presented them during the council’s work session. He noted, for instance, that the proposed base salary hikes would mean an additional $8,911 a year for every police officer in the city’s employ.

Honeycutt said that, in the police department’s currently depleted state, Long will be able to draw on his agency’s lapsed salaries to cover the cost of these increases. He added, however, that in the future the council will need to budget an additional $1.6 million a year to accommodate the additional compensation.

In the meantime, Honeycutt projected a cost of $500,000 a year for what he called “biannual” 2-percent raises that he also proposed to the council. [Editor’s note: While Honeycutt used the term biannual, he described semi-annual, twice-a-year, raises.]

Honeycutt nevertheless added that Long had agreed to discontinue these increases once he had filled at least 85 percent of his agency’s 145 posts with fully-trained, “deployable” officers.

During Monday’s work session, the city’s police chief admitted that his “deployable” force stood at some 104 officers – far short of the 123 he would need to reach his objective. Long predicted that it could take three to four years to attain this desired level of staffing, and he encouraged the council to retain the semi-annual raises until then.

“Some of the agencies that we’re losing most of our officers to have already implemented the equivalent of a 6 percent annual raise,” the police chief proceeded to stress. “We’re very intentional about aggressively recruiting highly qualified candidates that are ready to go out there and make a difference…and I think that this package of benefits will demonstrate the value that we place in them.”

Honeycutt went on to propose that city should “sunset” the semi-annual raises once the police department surpasses this threshold for four months in a row. But, for the time being, the city manager recommended the combination of semi-annual raises and base salary increases in order to the maximize its efforts to recruit and retain police officers.

“This is very aggressive,” he added. “But one thing we didn’t want to do is come back to you in six months and say ‘oh, by the way, we did not add enough.’

“There is a cost that’s associated with this,” the city manager went on to declare. “To do everything that we’re asking, it’s $2.1 million, which could potentially take an increase of 4 cents on the tax rate.”

 

A “hydrant”-headed dilemma
Honeycutt’s pitch didn’t get much of an argument from the council, which agreed to tack the entire package of proposed pay raises onto Tuesday’s meeting agenda. The following night saw the council sign off on both sets of increases, clearing the way for their implementation beginning on November 26.

In the meantime, this potential bonanza for the city’s police officers sparked the interest of another municipal department that has also grappled with its share of salary-related defections.

Over the next 24 hours, word of the police department’s proposed raises spread through the ranks of the city’s fire department – and engendered precisely the sort of response that one would expect from this agency’s hard-charging crews.

That night, dozens of firefighters and their supporters piled into the council’s meeting chambers, which were nearly full by the time that the council rose to the dais. Clad in departmental jackets and sweatshirts, these visitors respectfully maintained their peace until the designated public comment period which closed out that evening’s proceedings.

Burlington firefighters made up the bulk of the audience for Burlington’s city council meeting on November 15.

At that point, Burlington resident Danny Morton strode up to the podium to share a few words on behalf of the group.

Burlington resident Danny Morton

“These guys are the first ones out there on the EMT calls; they’re giving everything they’ve got. But you’re losing firefighters to bigger departments over salaries. You can actually get a job stocking shelves at Target for more than these guys are making…If it causes taxes to go up to get these ladies and gentlemen what they need, then maybe that’s how it needs to be.” – Burlington resident Danny Morton

“I know there’s been a lot of stuff that has happened budget-wise for the police department,” Morton began with a show of due deference to the city’s police force. “I’m not taking anything away from you; you guys deserve it…But the council really needs to think about these heroes behind me and what we can do for them.

“These guys are the first ones out there on the EMT calls; they’re giving everything they’ve got,” he added. “But you’re losing firefighters to bigger departments over salaries. You can actually get a job stocking shelves at Target for more than these guys are making…If it causes taxes to go up to get these ladies and gentlemen what they need, then maybe that’s how it needs to be.”

It was ultimately left to Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler to soothe this smoldering sense of injustice among Morton and his professional colleagues.

Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“This city council and those on the leadership team love and respect and cherish every employee in the city of Burlington. Working in city government is a noble profession; it’s not just a job…and while we don’t have solutions to every issue that’s before us, we’re very tenacious…We can’t solve all these problems in one meeting, but we will stay focused on it.” – Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“This city council and those on the leadership team love and respect and cherish every employee in the city of Burlington,” he asserted. “Working in city government is a noble profession; it’s not just a job…and while we don’t have solutions to every issue that’s before us, we’re very tenacious…We can’t solve all these problems in one meeting, but we will stay focused on it.”

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