By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — After a financially uncertain 2020 and as the Salisbury Police department and public works departments struggle to retain and hire employees, a property tax hike may be on the table for the upcoming budget.
City manager Lane Bailey, who is tasked with preparing a recommended budget each fiscal year, told council members during the city’s goal-setting retreat Thursday that he anticipates a $733,211 year-over-year increase in expenses for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, with about $300,000 of that due to higher insurance costs.
Additionally, property tax collections as of December are low, and he doesn’t anticipate the collection rate increasing by much due to financial struggles associated with the pandemic. In December 2019, the collection rate reached 84%, but as of December 2020 the city has received 81% of property tax collections.
The city’s current fiscal year ends June 30. Its new year starts July 1.
The biggest challenge, Bailey says, will be budgeting operating costs, particularly for the Salisbury Police Department and the Public Works Department, which both report issues with recruiting and retaining employees due to better, more competitive compensation and benefits in surrounding municipalities.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, $17.12 million is allocated for public safety, with $10.2 million of that directed to police operations, administration and service.
The police department received a 15% pay raise in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. This raise allowed the department to raise its starting salary for an officer from $34,223 to $39,357 where it remainss. After the pay raise, only Charlotte reported a higher annual salary.
But now, nine other nearby agencies provide higher starting salaries, including Mooresville, Concord, High Point and the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office.
Chief Jerry Stokes presented council members with information about staffing. Stokes is tasked with retaining a staff level of at least 95%. But of the 83 sworn budgeted positions in the department, only 72 positions are currently filled, leaving 11 vacancies. In addition to four officers leaving and only one being hired so far in 2021, Stokes said another officer is approaching retirement and four have reported they’re actively seeking law enforcement positions in other places.
Based on exit interviews, Stokes said the main concerns have been a lack of career advancement opportunities, compression in pay scales and opportunities elsewhere to apply skills and abilities. A young staff and low-quality applicant pool are two other challenges facing the department.
Additionally, Stokes reported 2020 saw the lowest number of students entering basic law enforcement training since 2016. Last year’s rate showed 50% fewer students than 2019, according to the NC Justice Standards Commission. The commission also estimates there are at least 1,000 vacancies across police departments in North Carolina.
After receiving the pay raise for 2018, the department reported nine officers left, but it hired 22 additional staff. In 2020, the department lost 12, but only hired four officers. The department broke even with nine gone and nine hired in 2019.
That’s a 14.5% turnover rate in 2020, with the national rate set at 10.8%.
Of the 57 officers who have left since 2016, 19 went to other law enforcement agencies, 14 were let go due to misconduct, 11 retired, five left the law enforcement field entirely and seven were a “training failure.” That amounts to 165 years of experience that the department has lost, Stokes said.
Mooresville, Cabarrus County and Concord are among the biggest competitors for Salisbury, he said.
He estimated it takes up to $80,000 to replace each officer after factoring in salary, benefits, uniforms, equipment and training.
Bailey said in addition to competitive salaries elsewhere, police departments face challenges associated with societal issues surrounding law enforcement.
To address these concerns, Stokes suggested a base pay that matches or exceeds other markets, a predictable salary advancement, training or step-based pay supplements or bonuses, increased incentives for experience and sign-on bonuses for new hires to attend basic law enforcement training. Other incentives could include gym memberships, cell phone stipends and shift differentials.
Stokes said the department is currently working to establish a 501(c)3 foundation to provide additional support to the department.
To reach a competitive base pay, Stokes recommends getting to $41,000 or $42,000, though he anticipates other markets would raise their base pay as well.
“These are difficult policing times,” Stokes said.
Public Services Director Craig Powers reports similar grim statistics, attributing recruitment and retainment issues to strong competition from the private sector and other cities. Of the 52 budgeted positions, 20 employees have left within the last year and a half, with eight of those relocating to other cities and counties. There are currently seven vacancies and two unfilled positions for work at the Bell Tower Green Park project.
And after the hiring freeze from the pandemic was lifted last year, only one employee has been hired since September.
Concord remains a competitor for public works employees as well. Concord’s starting pay is 40% higher than Salisbury’s starting pay. Statesville’s pay is 27% higher. Kannapolis reports a pay 9% higher.
Mayor Karen Alexander called the issue a matter of “quality of life” because the employees keep the city going. She suggested coordinating with Rowan-Salisbury Schools to recruit interns who would be funded through a federal program, with potential for future full-time employment.
Powers said interns could come in handy for the Bell Tower Green project.
“These two departments keep us going,” said council member Tamara Sheffield. “Not to dismiss other departments but we know that’s who has the touches with our citizens and keeps us moving forward,” she said.
Though Bailey anticipates the city could see some of the recent investments from tax incentives granted through the Rowan Economic Development Commission, investments from housing developments wouldn’t be reflected in the next budget. But it’s difficult to balance reduced tax collections with a community that’s struggling due to the pandemic, he added.
Council member Brian Miller said the challenge is staying above water until then. He said the city needs to find creative ways to address these issues without raising the tax rate.
Though uncertain at this time, part of President Joe Biden’s proposed stimulus package earmarks money for local governments. Both Alexander and Bailey said preliminary data show Salisbury could receive $7 million, which may have spending requirements with a priority on infrastructure projects.
Bailey said the city will revisit these issues next month once more numbers better reflect incoming revenues.
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.