On Tuesday, Raleigh announced that they would be increasing pay for some city workers.  This was unusual in a couple of respects.  First, it’s mid-year.  That rarely happens.  Usually, the city waits for a new fiscal year and a new budget to bring in pay increases.  These, however, will be effective April 1, which is three months before the new fiscal year.

Second, it’s affecting a lot of city employees.  There are 300 or so positions the city has determined are underpaid relative to similar positions in other cities, 400 that have “unusually high turnover,” and 215 that have salaries under the recently adopted “universal living wage.”  We knew those last 215 were coming.  The rest were more of a surprise.

There were also a bunch of police officers and firefighters included in this pay increase.  That particularly caught my eye because Durham had just done the same thing a day earlier.  What exactly is going on with police pay?

Starting pay for police officers is pretty easy to find for most departments.  It’s public money, so most departments put it right there on their websites, I suspect both as an attempt at transparency and as a recruitment tool.  Of the 20 largest cities in North Carolina, I was able to easily find starting pay for 17.  It should be noted that I found the absolute lowest starting pay I could find.  A lot of departments give a bonus if you have a college degree, for example, but I excluded that.  I looked at entry level for new police recruits without a degree.

I’ll admit I was surprised by the range I found – from $32,555 to $42,009.  The average was just over $35,000.  Of course, these are starting salaries.  Police officers with more experience and seniority can make substantially more.  As with most careers, officers work their way up to better pay.

Raleigh’s increase to $40,000 will move them to number two in this list, just after Charlotte.  Durham’s increase to $37,000 will put them in line with Chapel Hill.  And honestly, I don’t have a problem with paying police officers more.  I think we all agree that recruiting good officers to work in our communities is important for all of us.

That said, I do have some questions, and this is the big one.  Where is the money coming from?  Raleigh says its pay raises are going to cost $1.8 million dollars this fiscal year.  THIS fiscal year.  That means between now and the end of June.  The raises are effective April 1, so that’s $1.8 million over three months.  And that’s just Raleigh.  I haven’t been able to find reliable figures for Durham, but it’s safe to say we’re talking about millions.

Which is great, if you have the money.  But the need for these sorts of pay increases are precisely why we at the John Locke Foundation have consistently argued that cities and counties should be more careful about how they spend their money.  I’ve urged caution for Rocky Mount when considering a new event center, for Wake County on their transit plan, for Greensboro and Randolph County when building an industrial megasite, for Cumberland County and High Point looking to build ballparks.

Cities and Counties, just like individuals, have limited budgets.  If I spend $10,000 on a bathroom remodel that’s nice but not really necessary, then I may find myself in a tough spot when the roof starts leaking and wish I’d saved the cash for that more important expense.

Just a couple weeks ago, I argued that Raleigh should reject calls to expand the Convention Center because it’s already requiring millions of dollars in subsidies from taxpayers.  This police pay raise is a perfect example of why.  Local governments should stick to core functions so they have the flexibility in their budgets to pay for pay raises when police officers (and other city employees providing essential services) need them.  A shiny new expansion to the Convention Center might be fun, but paying our police officers is more important.