Thursday, March 23, 2023

Burgaw commissioners prioritize detective position in budget discussion

Burgaw Board of Commissioners held a two-day budget retreat at the Historic Train Depot and agreed to prioritize additional police personnel next fiscal year. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

BURGAW — The Town of Burgaw is looking to add an additional detective to its police department in fiscal year 2022 to assist with a steady increase in call volume. 

During a two-day budget retreat this week, town commissioners reviewed department heads’ 10-year capital improvement plans and discussed the greatest needs of the town. While no action was taken, the officials said, if funds are available, creating a second detective position would be high on its list of priorities.

“Right now, we don’t know where we stand budget-wise for this upcoming year,” Burgaw town manager James Gantt clarified at the meeting Wednesday. “This is the kickoff to that, so this is getting our priorities. We don’t focus on numbers at this point; we focus on priorities and then we try to plug those priorities into numbers when we have those revenue estimates.”

Mayor Olivia Dawson said the need for an additional hire seemed favorable to commissioners to ensure the police department has adequate resources to properly do its job. 

Burgaw Police Department responded to 7,686 calls last year, the majority not crime-related. For the first two months of 2021, around 1,400 of those calls were in regards to community-related functions, such as funeral escorts, vehicle unlocks, and outreach, all of which require personnel hours.

The base salary of a Burgaw police detective is considered competitive, Gantt said, and would be in the $45,000 to $50,000 range, depending upon experience. There is already sufficient equipment and a vehicle available for a new hire.

“It’s a good-sized town for one detective,” he added. “We want to make sure cases are handled and as quickly as possible to provide justice for victims.”

Police Chief Jim Hock explained that investigation caseload is not a direct metric to determine the need for an additional detective. Rather, it considers whether  trained officers are having to step away from their daily responsibilities to assist with the current detective’s caseload.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data, Burgaw handled 13 violent crimes in 2019 — five rapes, three robberies, five aggravated assaults — as well as 130 property crimes, 17 burglaries, 112 larcenies, two motor-vehicle thefts, two cases of arson and zero murders.

Compared to other N.C. counties of a similar population, which is around 4,000, crime is low in Burgaw. 

Burgaw Police Chief Jim Hock said the additional detective would assist with narcotics investigations and the general caseload. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, local law enforcement is responsible for 90% of drug-related arrests. The number of drug-related crimes in Burgaw were not provided by the Burgaw Police Department.

“We do see narcotics in traffic stops and we have a relatively new K-9 unit,” Gantt said. “There are a lot of man hours involved in just one case. Drug use is definitely around and if we’re able to catch someone with a little narcotic, you work to build that case and try to find the one providing those drugs.”

Pender County is not immune to the opioid crisis plaguing the state and saw 14 overdose deaths from illicit drugs in 2020 according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services; however, it’s considered lower risk compared to other counties.

Commissioner Wilfred Robbins said at the meeting, recruiting an experienced detective to a smaller town could prove difficult with a slim recruitment pool amid a nationwide police staffing shortage. Gantt said the level of expertise at the department would make it easy to train a less-qualified detective, if needed.

The Burgaw Police Department is considered fully staffed within its current budget. But it wasn’t always that way. 

“We did go through a time where we had people leave for various reasons,” Gantt explained. “We struggled getting applicants and good quality ones to apply.”

Today it houses 15 full-time employees — up from 12 in 2015 when Hock was named chief. It also includes an administrative assistant, who is a sworn officer as well. “This is an added benefit, so she can handle things in the office without having to call an officer off the street,” Gantt said.

Prior to August 2021, the department was one of the lowest on the pay scale, making it difficult to recruit and retain. The town approved $3,000 across-the-board raises for base police salaries in 2021. A patrol officer salary starts at $41,971; corporal at $43,477 and a detective-sergeant at $45,680.

According to each respective town’s website, Shallotte, with a population of roughly 4,000, offers starting pay at $38,545; and Surf City, with a population around 3,500, offers incentive pay up to $42,603 after one year on the job.

Dawson told Port City Daily competitive wages are vital to maintaining employees and ensuring they can bear the cost of living, which has increased 7.8% nationwide for 2022, according to Gantt. 

Gantt explained new or current officers can earn a bump in their salary as they gain education, training and certifications. The majority of the town’s officers have associate or bachelor’s degrees, and many obtained either intermediate or advanced certificates through the N.C. Justice Academy.

“It plays into having a well-trained and confident staff to handle everyday needs of the department,” Gantt said. “We try our best to have good, quality employees. It’s something I pride our agency in, and it shows in the work that’s done in our small but growing town.”

The last time the town added positions to the department was fiscal year 2019-2020. The assistant manager was hired to ease the burden of Chief Hock, who was overseeing administrative responsibilities as well as evidence management. The town also hired a K-9 officer the same budget year.

Police call volume has seen a steady increase every year, Hock said. The department would not provide exact data, stating reporting methods have changed, making year-to-year comparisons difficult to quantify. 

“With that growth comes more citizens that require law enforcement assistance, as well as vehicle-related issues, such as traffic enforcement and accident investigations,” he said. “As the town grows, we plan on growing along with it.”

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