HUNTERSVILLE – The town board held another pre-meeting workshop and a public hearing during its May 21 session, and commissioners and residents clearly expressed opinions. But the status of future funding for fire and police personnel remains fuzzy with only a few weeks left until municipal budgets are adopted.
Police officer pay – amounts and the policy for determining steps on the pay-grade ladder – continued as a dominant point of discussion. In the current budget proposal, all officers with the Huntersville Police Department (HPD) are positioned to receive a 4-percent pay increase on July 1. That is the salary bump Interim Town Manager Jackie Huffman is recommending for every town employee.
But that is not enough to stem the tide of officers being lured by better pay and different circumstances at other departments, according to statements HPD Chief Cleveland Spruill made during a budget workshop held May 14. At that session, Spruill said the boost in pay would be appreciated, but what’s needed is an amended and structured pay program to help him retain and recruit officers to his department.
At the May 21 meeting, in front of a standing-room-only audience that included many HPD officers, commissioners acknowledged the ongoing conversation about police compensation and the importance of addressing the issue.
Several community residents spoke in favor of better pay for officers during the public comment portion of the meeting. And a few commissioners mentioned the idea of using excess town salary funds (money set aside to pay town positions that are currently unfilled) or perhaps even designating proceeds from town property sales to enhance officer pay.
But Mayor Pro Tem Melinda Bales, leading the meeting in the absence of Mayor John Aneralla, said the current plan is to keep the basic 4-percent pay increase in the budget package with the understanding other adjustments can be made after the budget is adopted.
Those adjustments could be determined by the outcome of a study Anthony Roberts plans to initiate when he begins work as Huntersville’s town manager on June 5. At the May 14 workshop, Roberts (currently Cornelius’ town manager) said he wanted to take a closer look at individual circumstances and the HPD’s current guidelines before recommending changes. As Bales mentioned several times during the budget workshop, Roberts has targeted Aug. 6 as the presentation date for his findings.
And as Bales’ referenced, Roberts also told commissioners that adjustments in officer pay and the HPD payment policy could be implemented, through board action, at any point during the fiscal year.
“I am adamantly opposed to this,” Commissioner Danny Phillips said right after Bales introduced discussion of fire service expenditures and, in particular, Huntersville Fire Chief Jim Dotoli’s request for $171,000 to create a new incident commander position within the department.
Phillips said the proposal doesn’t add people to the department, but “it’s paying five people to do what’s already being done.”
Phillips said he wished Dotoli was at the meeting to discuss the issue, but Dotoli was in Nebraska checking on a fire truck scheduled for delivery to the Huntersville Fire Department (HFD). But Dotoli did outline his vision for the position at a May 14 budget workshop Phillips missed.
With the additional department funds, which are included in Huffman’s proposed budget, Dotoli said five current members of the department would be assigned to share 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week leadership responsibilities. Dotoli said the plan would create the department’s “first management positions” and provide a clear chain of command in all situations.
“Somebody has to call the shots,” Dotoli told commissioners at the May 14 meeting. “In a case of multiple calls coming in at the same time, you need to have someone making sure everything gets done. It has to be clear somebody’s in charge.”
At the most recent workshop, Phillips emphasized that he didn’t see the need for the extra funds or the incident commander position, but he did endorse more pay for the firemen.
“I think we should raise all fireman pay at the same level of town employees,” he said. “Raise fireman pay 4 percent, and let them use their own money to fund this spot.”
During the budget public hearing held later, one town resident also spoke against the fire department proposal, saying the department needed to be more transparent about its expenditures and suggesting $171,000 for the incident commander post could be used to pay police officers instead.