Vacant police jobs may be cut
By Jon Hawley
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Elizabeth City city councilors weighed Monday whether the city should shrink its police force a little to better pay the officers it already has.
Councilors asked City Manager Rich Olson and police Chief Eddie Buffaloe to explore whether the city should eliminate vacant officer positions to free up money for officer raises Olson and Buffaloe say are much needed.
Citing high turnover and numerous vacancies, Olson has proposed 8-percent raises for police officers and firefighters as part of his 2019-20 budget proposal. Those first-responder raises would cost about $400,000. Olson has also proposed 3-percent raises for all other city employees except electrical linemen. Olson has proposed 10-percent raises for them, citing demand for their specialized skills.
Paying for the raises — plus covering the purchase and renovation costs of a new senior center at The Daily Advance building — prompted Olson to recommend a budget for next year that includes a 4-cent increase in the property tax rate but no grant funding for most nonprofits the city has supported over the years.
Councilors and Mayor Bettie Parker opposed Olson's initial proposal, and asked city staff to develop other ways to handle the raises.
Olson presented those options Monday night. He explained the total cost of raises for all city employees would be split among different funds. Most of the city's employees, including first responders, are paid out of the general fund, so raises most affect that fund, he explained. The general fund is supported by property and sales tax revenues, while utility funds and the sanitation fund are supported by user rates and fees. Utility fund revenue, for example, helps cover the linemen costs.
Olson said the city could avoid a tax increase if employees got no raises, and the city didn't restore funding for nonprofits.
To grant a 3-percent raise to all city employees — with no extra for first responders — would cost about $272,000, Olson said. That would require a property tax rate increase of a little more than 2 cents since each cent of the property tax rate raises about $119,000, he said.
A 4-percent raise for all employees would require a 3-cent tax increase, and a 5-percent raise would require a 4-cent tax increase, Olson continued.
Restoring grant funding to nonprofits would require adding another cent to the property tax rate increase, Olson said. The extra cent would fund earmarks for the Food Bank of the Albemarle, Arts of the Albemarle, and the Community Support Grant Program, plus another $50,000 earmark for a homeless shelter, costing about $125,000 total, he said.
Though presenting options for simple, across-the-board raises, Olson reiterated that the city has lost numerous police officers over the last year due to low pay, and seen 28-percent turnover. That led him to ask councilors to consider 5-percent raises for police and firefighters, and 3-percent raises for other employees; linemen would also get 5-percent raises, but that would not affect the property tax rate.
That approach would require a 3-cent tax increase, or 4 cents if funding for nonprofits were included in next year’s budget, he said.
Councilors noted that for some time Elizabeth City has lost officers to higher-paying communities, particularly Currituck County. Councilor Johnnie Walton also noted the city has lost population over the years, while still supporting the same number of officers.
Olson responded, “What would cure that, then, is that the city council authorize us to decrease the number of full-time police officers from 64 down to another number.”
Olson said the city has almost never fully staffed the police department in his 16 years as manager. That means the city is budgeting for more positions than it can expect to fill, and eliminating some would not decrease current levels of service.
Buffaloe previously said that, with the 8-percent raises, he would expect to fill at least half the vacancies over the 2019-20 budget year.
Olson estimated the savings from going to 64 to 60 officer positions would be $250,000.
Mayor Pro Tem Rickey King initially said he opposed reducing the number of police positions. Council voted years ago that there should be 10 officers on the streets at all times, he said, and said keeping 64 positions would help meet that goal.
The city also needs plenty of officers so it's fully prepared for major emergencies, he said.
“You never know what's going to happen,” he said.
Councilor Billy Caudle disagreed. The city has never been able to field 64 officers, he said, and reducing positions might help cover substantial raises for officers the city does have.
“We also need to take care of the employees that we have,” Caudle said, saying that would help with recruitment and retention.
King called for Olson and Buffaloe to sit down and discuss the appropriate number of officers; Olson agreed to do so, adding he believes the police force should stay around 60.
Walton also called on Olson to look at all city departments to see if other vacant positions could be eliminated to save money; the city should look at all departments, not just police, and deliver a “bare-bones” budget, he said.
Parker also agreed with looking at police’s staffing levels, if it frees up money to reduce a tax increase and support nonprofits.
Olson also presented other parts of his proposed general fund budget on Monday. Other than increased costs for the senior center, he reported few changes or major new expenses from the current year.
Notably, Olson has reported to council that he's shifted some expenses and personnel between departments, such as centralizing computer purchases through the information technology department, but those have little to no net impact on the budget.
Council still needs to review next year's proposed electrical, water-sewer and other enterprise funds.