Politics & Government

Police chief says he can't fill empty jobs. Will city come through with more pay?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday he is "trying to be patient" as the city decides whether to give police officers more money in the upcoming budget.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday he is "trying to be patient" as the city decides whether to give police officers more money in the upcoming budget. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney told the City Council on Wednesday that he is struggling to fill 174 empty positions and that the city needs to raise officers' pay to attract new job candidates. But it's unclear whether the city will come through with more money.

During a budget workshop, Putney said he is trying to dig out of a hole in which the department saw 20 percent decreases in people applying for jobs in 2016 and 2017.

He said higher pay would help. CMPD has about 1,800 people. City manager Marcus Jones will make his budget recommendation next month.

But when discussing the budget Wednesday, Jones said an early scenario has money for the type of raises that were given last year but not what Jones called "enhancements."

The Fraternal Order of Police has asked for a 15 percent increase to base pay as well as a reduction in the number of steps needed for officers to reach full pay.

The FOP has been lobbying Jones and council members this year, saying higher pay is essential to improve morale and keep officers from leaving.

Republican council member Ed Driggs urged his colleagues to have an additional meeting to discuss police pay. He said he wanted their views fully known before Jones makes his budget recommendation in early May.

"We have heard loudest from the police department," Driggs said. "They are on the front lines. I don't want to exclude other staffers, but I feel the most critical decision we are dealing with is with officers. We are losing them as fast we are hiring them."

But other council members were unwilling to have an additional workshop on police pay after having already had two other meetings on the budget.

"We ought to let the manager do his job," said Democrat Dimple Ajmera.

Historically, council members make only small changes to a city manager's recommended budget in the month before the state requires cities to pass a budget, in June.

Driggs said he is worried that the council will be following "business as usual" unless it gives the manager specific instructions on police pay.

In speaking to the City Council, Putney said CMPD has launched a marketing campaign to get more applicants. But he said the strong economy gives people more options. He also said the aftermath of the Keith Scott shooting in September 2016 has hung over the department.

"If all we talk to our people about is accountability and transparency and lack of trust, the people who want to join have second thoughts," Putney said.

Putney said he is "encouraged" and that he is "trying to be patient" as council members and Jones work through the budget.

Though the economy is booming and giving the city new tax revenue, there are also more requests for public money.

Mayor Vi Lyles wants the city to increase the amount of money directed to the Housing Trust Fund from $15 million to $50 million. The fund is usually replenished every two years, if voters approve bonds for low-income housing. Like giving officers a significant pay raise, increasing the trust fund to $50 million could require a property tax increase.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs