Burlington’s city council is mulling a package of pay hikes worth nearly $1.3 million a year to help the city’s police department recruit and retain qualified officers and dispatchers.
This seven-figure proposal, which comes out of a salary study that the city commissioned from the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, isn’t the only potential salary increase that the city’s leaders are contemplating as they grapple with unprecedented staffing shortages across Burlington’s municipal government. The police department’s proposed raises are nevertheless the first of these prospective hikes to be unveiled before Burlington’s city council, whose members have made no secret of their desire to do what’s necessary to see that the city’s police force continues to comprise Burlington’s finest.
The council’s members were certainly solicitous of the police department’s ability to recruit and retain the best personnel when they received the results of the regional council’s pay study during their latest regularly-scheduled work session on Monday.
That evening, the council heard from Matt Reece, a consultant with this Greensboro-based local government advocacy group who oversaw the pay study on the city’s behalf. During his report to the council, Reece noted that Burlington has found itself in a “very aggressive” market for police officers and dispatchers that extends from Greensboro to Wake County. Reece noted that this market includes well-funded, fast-growing communities like Cary and Apex, which haven’t previously been in direct competition with Burlington.
“It is the most aggressive labor market that I have seen in my career,” he added. “It’s just a really, really aggressive place that we have found ourselves in – and that kind of volatility, that kind of turnover, that demand for competing positions have put a lot of pressure on salaries.”
Reece’s impressions were confirmed by Burlington’s police chief Brian Long, who conceded that his department currently goes through an average of 28 applications in order to staff a single vacant position. Long added that, lately, he and his colleagues simply haven’t been getting the applicants they need to keep up with the attrition on the police force.
“Part of this plan,” he added, “is to get us to a place in the market where we retain the employees we’ve already invested in and in addition to that, where we attracted more local hires and are sufficiently placed to catch some of our competition [in other areas].”
Long also acknowledged that communities in the Triangle have been an increasing drain on the police department’s manpower, notwithstanding the longer commutes that these places entail for police officers who live in Alamance County.
In light of this fierce competition for talent, Reece recommended a series of flat pay raises that would begin at the lowest rung of the police department and work their way up the chain of command to ensure that the department’s salaries are competitive at all levels. The consultant suggested that this increase should be somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,904 for Burlington’s telecommunicators, while he proposed a bump of $7,271 for all of the city’s sworn police officers.
“It is a very straightforward way of implementing the study,” he added, “but it also adds some expense…It is meant to be a decisive action; it is meant to really move the needle.”
The consultant ultimately deferred to Jaime Joyner, the city’s personnel director, to present the total cost that these salary adjustments would have on Burlington’s coffers. Joyner told the council that the city will need to lay out $636,779 for the remainder of this fiscal year, and $1,273,558 for a full, 12-month cycle in order to implement the suggested increases for all 221 of the police department’s sworn officers as well as its 18 telecommunicators.
Peggy Reece, the city’s finance director, said that the cost of these raises would approach $1.5 million if all of the police force’s 139 positions for sworn officers were filled.
Ian Baltutis, the city’s outgoing mayor, expressed some skepticism that wage increases alone will be the silver bullet to solve the police department’s struggles with retention and recruitment.
“My concern is that we don’t get stuck on a treadmill here,” he told the rest of the council during the work session. “What I’m seeing from departments all around the state and the country is that they’re all struggling with 20 percent vacancy [rates]…So, there’s only so long we can keep raising salaries. We have to get way more innovative in finding solutions.”
In response to Baltutis, Long countered that the police department has tried to improve the working conditions of officers and given them more latitude in choosing assignments at the same time it has looked at potential increases in wages.
Meanwhile, a question from councilman Harold Owen elicited an admission from Joyner that other city departments are also facing challenges with recruitment and retention not unlike those that have gripped the police force. Owen went on to argue that, if the council approves the police department’s proposed raises, it would be hard pressed to refuse the same courtesy for other positions.
“There’s a number of people who are still earning less than $15 an hour,” he said. “How do we deal with that? How do we deal with the sanitation workers? These are key people, guys…Don’t get me wrong, the police officers need increases. But we’re responsible for the entire organization, not just one department. ”
According to Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, the attrition currently plaguing the city has been especially severe in public works, the city’s water resources division, and even among its administrative assistants. As a result, Watkins said that these particular positions will be addressed in the next salary studies that the Piedmont Triad Regional Council undertakes on behalf of the city.
“It has been unprecedented certainly in my career,” the city manager added, “how the market has shifted so fast.”
Watkins went on to ask the council for permission to “explore” the potential use of federal pandemic funds to bankroll these proposed pay increases – at least during the three years that those funds will be available to the city. The city manager conceded that the city would then pick up the tab for those raises, which he stressed would be permanent even if their initial funding is not. The council, for its part, gave him the go-ahead to pursue this proposal.
In the meantime, Jim Butler, who was formally sworn in as the city’s new mayor on Tuesday, suggested that the council make the proposed police raises an “action item” in January in order to give the police force “the horsepower it needs to move forward.” Butler also embraced the call for pay raises in other areas of city government, although he insisted that the council should start to address staff compensation with the police department.
“This is what’s before us,” he added. “This one is so critical that we need to get them an answer.”