Mount Airy officials, including a retired police lieutenant, made a case Friday afternoon for raising law enforcement pay in the city during a debate that grew heated at times.
“For us to start a police officer at $29,000 is terrible,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said during the second of a two-day planning session, or retreat, held by city officials at a local bank to discuss budget and other priorities.
Higher pay for sworn officers of the Mount Airy Police Department quickly emerged as one item at the top of the to-do list Friday afternoon, led by Brinkley and others.
“It’s a unfair setup for the police department — period,” added Brinkley, whose comments were fueled by information recently released by retired Mount Airy Police Chief Roger McCreary showing officers starting here at $29,000 are underpaid compared to other agencies.
This has contributed greatly to ongoing department vacancies experienced over the past couple of years which are believed to compromise public safety, with that number now six out of a full sworn-officer capacity of 41, despite two members added Wednesday.
The tone of McCreary’s report was continued during Friday’s planning session that included the five city commissioners, Mayor David Rowe and the city’s manager, human resources director and finance director, among others. In the end, staff members were directed by consensus to devise a salary system whereby new officers will earn $34,000 to $35,000 annually.
‘Let them sue!’
But that did not result until after some heated exchanges.
A clear division soon emerged between commissioners Brinkley, Jim Armbrister, who retired from the city police force in 2012, and Jon Cawley on one side and City Manager Barbara Jones and Becky McCann, the human resources director, on the other.
The debate centered on the need to adjust pay scales to better compensate police because of the dangers they face and their role in protecting the public vs. a reluctance to alter a pay system that applies to municipal employees of all departments.
“This is a typical pay scale — this is a standard pay scale,” the city manager said of the situation now in place.
“That don’t make it right,” Brinkley shot back.
“I think we need to re-evaluate the way these scales are set up,” added Brinkley, who called for a separate pay scale for sworn police officers apart from other city personnel due to the unique situation they represent. “This (the present arrangement) just does not make any sense to me.”
But Brinkley’s position attracted turbulence.
“I need to be fair to all employees,” the city manager said during the lengthy discussion.
“Someone who puts their life on the line every day should be in a totally different category,” the often-outspoken councilwoman argued. “They do something totally different — and I don’t think it’s a fair way to treat these officers.”
At one point, McCann, the human resources director, advised caution to avoid discrimination toward other employees, a comment that highlighted Armbrister’s entry into the verbal fray.
“Discrimination — my gosh!” he responded, pointing out that other city employees don’t get guns stuck in their faces.
Armbrister also had a sharp response for a statement by McCann that non-police personnel might resent higher pay for police and take some kind of action.
“What’s wrong with that?” Armbrister said of this scenario and the notion of perceived harm to other employees. And if this indeed proves to be a problem, he had an answer — “let them sue!”
“I can’t imagine somebody working in a different department and getting mad because the police officers got a raise,” Brinkley said.
Armbrister also seemed to bristle at an explanation by McCann regarding the municipality’s salary scale, which she said pays people according to the weighted value of their jobs regardless of on-the-job risk.
“You’d be paying a million dollars,” he said of calculating police officers’ worth.
Commissioner Cawley also weighed in on that line of debate.
“The level of training is different, and we need to pay for what we value,” he said, acknowledging that this could be applied to a broader category also including firefighters and public works personnel.
“Public works, fire and police, they’re all different from the recreation supervisor at Reeves (Community Center),” Cawley said.
“When you’re off, you’re off,” he continued regarding the latter, “and when you’re there (at RCC), people are working out.”
Earlier raise misguided?
Criticism also was leveled Friday toward a 3-percent raise granted all municipal employees when the commissioners approved the 2016-2017 city budget last June — including police — which one might have thought was a good thing.
However, this “blanket” approach did not serve to significantly aid those on the lower end of the spectrum, including newly hired police officers, Armbrister charged concerned the move representing an expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We blanketed that money at them,” Armbrister said of city personnel at large, “rather than put it where it would help the most.”
He said this fell short of remedying the officer pay issue. “We’re still sitting here with the same problem we had in the police department last year.”
In advocating higher law enforcement pay, Cawley also seemed irritated by what he framed as a contradiction in the ways city officials as a whole warmly embrace certain expenditures while being reluctant toward others.
“Some things we don’t mind paying for, and we don’t even ask a second question about it,” he said.
Although she seemed hesitant to tamper with the present pay scale that applies to all employees, the city manager pledged to develop a separate one for police.
“If that’s what the majority of the board wants, we’ll follow that directive.”
“Changes do have to be made every once in a while,” Brinkley said of the status quo.
“There’s got to be a better way — there’s got to be.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.