The town of Elon is currently facing a vacancy crisis among their staff.
Vacancies have affected every corner of the town’s staff. The town currently has vacancies at the positions of town planner in the developmental services department, recreation and parks director, and a position in human resources. Town clerk is also vacant, but will have someone filling the spot on March 4.
However, the department that has felt these vacancies the most is the police department. Elon’s police department currently has two vacant positions. The department has had the highest level of turnover over the course of this past year, and is the hardest one to find candidates for, according to Town Manager Rich Roedner.
“Fewer people want to be police officers. It's just a tough business these days, anything working with local government,” he said.
The primary reason for this increase in vacancies is money. Salaries for Elon’s employees are significantly lower than neighboring municipalities, and as a result, many are leaving Elon for a higher paying job.
Elon Police Chief Kelly Blackwelder said many police officers, particularly young officers, are leaving for higher paying jobs, whether that’s working at another police department or a completely separate job.
“It's very tempting for some of our younger officers who have new and growing families,” she said.
According to Blackwelder, the patrol division of Elon’s police department has been hit the hardest by vacancies.As a result, many people throughout the town staff have had to step up and work additional hours.
“We've got our administrative staff having to sometimes go out and fill in as either a patrol shoot supervisor or just an extra body on shift,” Blackwelder said.
Additionally, the police department is supplementing full time patrol officers with part-time officers to help ease the workload.
The low salaries are largely due to the lack of tax revenue coming into the town of Elon. Many other nearby municipalities are better equipped to pay their employees higher wages because of the difference in tax revenue. Twin Lakes Community and Elon University make up a large portion of the property of the town, and having two non profits provide such a large chunk of the total value of the town hurts the Elon’s ability to pay their employees.
“Over 40% of the total value of the town, we get no tax revenue from. That's a really high percentage for a municipality, and it makes it difficult to stay in league with communities that are larger than you and that have more financial resources available to them,” Roedner said. “Yet we still have to hire people, and we still have to pay them.”
Roedner said the problem is the fact that there are so many things the town has to spend capital on, and salaries are just an added expense.
“It makes it hard to say ‘alright, you got to pay for all these extra things with no more extra money, and how do we address wages?’ So that's, that's a situation we find ourselves in,” he said.
However, the crisis has come to a head, and the town of Elon will be utilizing money that would typically be spent on capital on personnel costs this year. On Jan. 22, Elon Town Council voted to add a 5% pay raise for all town employees. As this is only a temporary raise, however, this is merely just a start to the dedicated process of raising salaries.
Salaries could be further adjusted following a pay study that is currently being conducted by the town of Elon and is expected to be finalized by May or June. The study will be a report of where Elon sits with comparable communities in regards to employee wages, and will also provide recommendations on how to specifically adjust salaries of each position, if needed.
“The pay study is going to solidify that [5% raise], it's going to tell us where we are in the grand scheme of things,” Blackwelder said.
She believes that the 5% raise will help the police department’s salaries catch up with inflation and send a message to employees that the town is making an effort to make wages competitive with neighboring municipalities.
Blackwelder is grateful for the raise because she believes raising the salaries to a level that is comparable to nearby municipalities helps the police department retain and attract qualified talent.
“We're not looking for a warm body to fill a vacancy in Elon. We're looking for highly qualified persons to apply, and the only way we're going to get that is to be competitive with our sister agencies or neighboring agencies,” she said.
Blackwelder believes that the 5% raise coupled with a good sense of culture in the police department will help retain more officers. “We're trying to build a positive organizational culture within our department that, you know, makes it a place where somebody wants to work, where you have good accountability, you've got good transparency with your leadership,” she said.