CORNELIUS – Nearly 80 of the town’s 120 full-time employees, including the majority of the sworn members of the Cornelius Police Department, are expected to receive a raise starting April 1.
The split vote took place March 4 – three days before the board’s budget retreat, where commissioners were to begin financial discussions for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1. The raises could cost the town an additional $130,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year and add $419,000 to the current personnel costs for FY 2020, according to Town Manager Andrew Grant’s presentation. The allocation includes funds for a recruitment/retention/compression pool; sign-on bonus; Intermediate Law Enforcement certification bonus; probationary period 5 percent salary increase; and annual performance bonus pool. Grant said not all of the money may be spent since some comes from discretionary funds.
“This is the most irresponsible vote we’ve made since I’ve been here,” said Commissioner Kurt Naas, who voted against the measure along with David Gilroy on the grounds that they hadn’t been given any information about next year’s budget outlook before making such a drastic change mid-year. Both wanted to wait until the retreat before taking the vote.
“Well that’s your opinion, commissioner,” Mayor Woody Washam countered at the end of the two-hour discussion. “I think this is the most responsible one we’ve made.”
The new raises and incentives are aimed at improving staff recruitment and retention. Several town employees, particularly in the police department, have sought opportunities elsewhere in recent years.
Last fall, the Cornelius board heard the results of a Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius joint compensation study that outlined how the towns compare to other benchmark communities, as well as the true cost of turnover both in dollars for recruitment and training, as well as experience. They showed 39 percent of the town’s salary ranges are below market value, 64 percent of current employees are paid below market and 42 percent of staff have less than five years of experience, Grant said.
Since December, other municipalities have increased their recruiting efforts and four more police officers have resigned and cited compensation as one of their top reasons for leaving, he said. The average tenure for a Cornelius patrol officer is 1.6 years, though it takes three years and thousands of dollars to fully train one.
Other salaries mentioned as being below market value are finance director, accountant, telecommunicators and ranking police officers. Graphs show Cornelius pays one of the lowest salaries among the 19 studied jurisdictions for each one.
Gilroy wasn’t convinced by the data and said it doesn’t necessarily compare apples to apples, but Commissioner Denis Bilodeau said simply using the information for neighboring towns showed there is an issue.
For example, Huntersville and Davidson offer 5 percent raises following a probationary period. Using the starting salaries for each town and estimated raises for each one, the disparities in officer pay increase annually.
Grant’s four options for addressing pay issues in the short-term included just focusing on certain portions of the police department or making changes for all departments. The board approved the latter.
“This is the most difficult thing we do and the most sensitive,” Gilroy said. “We are trying to find a balance for public employee compensation and taxpayers (who are) continuously burdened more and more to write checks to their local government.”
He said personnel costs are increasing faster than the town is growing, though Washam said “a lot of that is driven by things beyond our control.”
“Nextdoor neighbors are stealing our employees, poaching our employees. … That’s not going to go away,” Washam said.
Cornelius’ previous town manager and finance director, as well as some police officers, took positions in Huntersville, and some officers have gone to Davidson and Charlotte in the last few years. Gilroy made a case that there were outlying factors other than compensation that played into why 44 people have left over the last six years, including personal reasons, work environment issues and better opportunities.
“You are making a great case for an HR professional,” Bilodeau said. “Some of this was preventable. But at the end of the day, we have the open positions, and salary ranges are not close enough to our neighboring towns. … We have got to fix this.”
The town administration is also working on non-monetary incentives for employees, including flex-day scheduling, parks and recreation discounts, increasing the sick leave donation cap and employee service recognition.