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SMITHFIELD — The meeting, which began at 7 p.m., was now two hours and 20 minutes long and Mayor Andy Moore asked the town council if it was ready to recess until the following week.
Councilman David Barbour said most of the remaining items on the long agenda could wait, but he wanted to talk about a proposal to raise police pay. “This is a matter of urgency to me,” he said.
Last summer, after a salary study, the town council raised police and other employee pay in a bid to bolster recruitment and retention. That worked in other departments, but vacancies on the police force have remained stubbornly high, Town Manager Michael Scott told the council last week.
“In July, the police department had five vacancies at that time,” Scott said. “Since then, we’ve maintained an average of 4.75 vacancies,” basically unchanged from six months ago.
“So there’s a concern that the salary study increases for the police department did not have the desired effect that we wanted to have as far as increased retention and recruitment of personnel,” the manager said.
“I will say that this is a common problem,” Scott added. “It’s not just Smithfield’s problem; we all have it. Nationwide, there’s a shortage of police officers.”
Scott then unveiled a proposal to increase the minimum pay of a Smithfield police officer from $39,600 a year to $45,540, an increase of 15 percent. The pay of veteran officers would climb too.
The council made last year’s pay hikes after looking at wages in Johnston County government and in the towns of Clayton, Garner, Knightdale and Selma. The changes unveiled last week would put Smithfield police pay on par with Knightdale, which has lured away a number of Smithfield officers over the years, Scott said.
“This is our chief competitor,” he said. “When they lose a person, they drive down to Smithfield and take one of our officers.”
Barbour called on the council to act. “If that’s who we’re losing people to, then that’s our competitor,” he said of Knightdale. “And we either lose ... to them continuously or we find a way to be competitive.”
Barbour said police officers he has spoken with have told them they like Smithfield and don’t want to leave. But the councilman said he couldn’t blame them for doing so.
“Based on what the salary is for that position, they can go somewhere also and get paid a lot more money,” Barbour said. “I think this is a matter that needs to be addressed, and I don’t think we can keep kicking it down the street.”
Councilman Travis Scott agreed that Smithfield needs to pay police officers more. “I totally agree that there is an issue here, and I totally support every police officer we have in this town,” he said. “I know they have a very difficult job. But they’re not our only employees, and we’ve got to look at it from a perspective of what’s fair to everybody.”
With healthy cash reserves, now is the time to look at paying all town employees what they deserve, Councilman Scott said. “We have an opportunity here to make some differences, because motivating our employees makes our town better,” he said.
But the councilman said such a plan would require more attention than the council could give it at the close of one nightly meeting.
Mayor Andy Moore said he too supported police and other town employees. But just because Smithfield has healthy cash reserves now, that doesn’t mean it will have them in the future, the mayor said, adding that employee pay is a recurring expense, not a one-time outlay.
“I’m not saying I’m against this at all,” Moore said. “I just caution you making that statement that we have the money this year, because this could be a 20-year investment for an employee. I caution each and everyone of you to take that into consideration whenever you think about this.”
Moore reminded the council that it had completed and implemented the recommendations of a wage study last July. If it’s going to revisit police pay after six months, the council needs to look at other pay too, he said.
“We just did a salary study, and if we’re not going to stand behind the salary study, then we have to open it up to everybody,” he said.
If adopted, the changes in police pay would cost $92,000 through the budget year that ends June 30. The town manager noted that because of vacancies, the police department’s salary budget is $120,000 below where it should be at this point, so Smithfield has the money to cover the proposed increases.