CITY MANAGER: POLICE VACANCIES BECOMING ‘CRISIS’

Po­lice of­fi­cer va­can­cies are be­com­ing a “cri­sis” both in El­iz­a­beth City and across the state, City Man­ager Rich Ol­son told city coun­cilors this week.

Speaking during a budget work session, Olson reported that after being down three police officers for several years, the city now has six officer vacancies in the police department. Only 58 of 64 officer positions are filled, he said.

But filling officer vacancies isn’t a problem unique to the Elizabeth City Police Department, Olson said.

“Statewide, we’re having a hard time finding law enforcement officers,” he said. “I was talking to someone in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area; they’re 300 to 400 officers short. They’re contemplating raising their base salary, entry salary, to $51,000 because of the shortage.”

Olson said Elizabeth City’s starting officer salary is around $35,000. He suggested there are no easy fixes to filling the vacancies.

“We are really struggling with how we should address this issue,” Olson said, adding that police Chief Eddie Buffaloe “is spending a lot of time trying to recruit new people.”

Third Ward Councilor Rickey King, a retired police officer, and First Ward Councilor Jeannie Young, mother of a police officer currently on the force, raised concerns about officer salaries. King said he often sees the city invest in officers’ training, only for them to leave for better pay in neighboring Currituck County.

Young said the city needs to offer competitive salaries so trained police officers don’t leave and take their skills elsewhere.

“I would like to find a way that we can kind of stop the bleeding,” she said.

Responding to their concerns, Olson said that, to qualify for some training, the city does require officers to stay with the department for a few years or reimburse the city for the cost of their coursework. He also noted that, once officers have been with the city for about 10 years, they tend to finish their careers with the city, due in part to longevity pay and a desire to build up their retirement benefits.

Monday’s discussion about police officer pay follows concerns expressed recently by the city’s former fire chief over staffing levels in the Elizabeth City Fire Department. Speaking at meetings as a private citizen, retired Fire Chief Larry Mackey has warned councilors that the fire department is dangerously understaffed.

While not endorsing the staffing levels Mackey favors, Olson told council he believes the city should add firefighters gradually. He noted the annual cost of two firefighters is about equal to the revenue generated by 1 penny of the city’s property tax rate.

Though the city’s annual fire calls have changed little over the years, Olson did note the fire department is increasingly providing aid to volunteer fire departments in both Pasquotank and Camden counties. Volunteer fire departments often can’t get to fires during their working hours, he noted.

Though acknowledging the personnel challenges in the city’s police and fire departments, Olson stopped short of calling for increased salaries or additional positions in next year’s city budget. Much of the city’s budget already goes to public safety, and the city needs to invest more in other departments, he said.

“In my opinion, we’re ignoring the other departments of the city,” Olson said. “The lion’s share of our resources go to police and fire.”

Olson noted the city had recently lost a planner who left to make more money in Virginia Beach.

Olson’s proposed 2018-19 budget proposes spending $10.4 million on police and fire services, which is just over half of his proposed $19.6 million general fund budget. He also noted the city has spent more than $4 million on capital projects for the police and fire departments since 2013, including purchasing a new public safety building.

Mayor Bettie Parker acknowledged the city’s spent a lot on first responders, but also said the lifesaving aid they provide is “hard to measure in dollars and cents.”

Other highlights of city officials’ discussion of police and fire include:

  • Olson’s proposal to spend about $259,000 on vehicles and equipment for the police department next year. Included are five police vehicles, 15 rifles, two surveillance cameras and a computer server.
  • Olson’s report that the city’s three police dogs, Colt, Duke and Karma, will hit retirement age in fall 2019. He suggested the city could operate effectively with only two K-9 units, noting that each K-9 costs $7,800, which includes the cost of the dog and training.
  • Olson’s proposal to spend about $67,000 on new equipment for the fire department, including $30,000 for air bottles, $24,000 for air packs and $8,500 for a thermal imaging camera. The camera helps firefighters locate the hottest parts of a structure fire.

From The Daily Advance