Even before scrutiny on police increased in the past year or so, police departments nationwide have been dealing with a shortage of recruits.
Strafford’s Board of Aldermen tried to combat that trend at its latest meeting on Tuesday, July 6.
The board voted unanimously to raise the starting pay for officers at the convening from $15.50 to $17 per hour.
City Administrator Martha Smartt told the board about the effort to recruit for many months, one that has not yielded a sufficient number of qualified applicants. "If the starting pay in Strafford is moved to $17, it really puts us right in the middle of a number of our sister cities," she said.
Other examples given in that context were Republic ($16.60), Fair Grove ($17.50), Battlefield ($16.50), and Greene County ($19.03).
Smartt noted that several of the department's current openings are budgeted already, so a pay increase could be absorbed into the current year's budget without needing an adjustment.
Existing police officers with lesser service time within the department are making closer to the new starting wage and an adjustment will allow for an increase to those officers to accommodate the approved starting pay raise.
One board member proposed going for arguably a half-dollar high, but Smartt said that projections with the suggested number, coupled with benefits, was deemed best after discussions with Police Chief Dennis Shook.
Said Shook, "I don't have a problem with $17 at this time. I'd like to see people's response when we repost [our openings after the increase], and it does allow us a chance to move up. If we had the money it'd be great to have $24 an hour like Springfield does [laughs], but I understand how big our city is and what we can do."
An ordinance was also passed at the meeting to amend a traffic code in the city's bylaws by repealing and replacing a comprehensive list of streets.
The move will repeal a section of code that says anywhere there is not a posted city limit that the speed is 30 miles per hour. That will be replaced with an actual listing of all streets, and in essence, make neighborhood streets 20 mph and collector streets 30 mph, with few exceptions.
"We're not inclined to spend a significant amount of money studying the streets, we just need to have some neighborhood streets down at 20 mph," Smartt said. "In general, the authoritative guidance indicated that a speed limit should be set where 80% of the population would travel at that speed limit safely. Sometimes if they're too low then people will drive faster, but our police recognize that there's going to be some latitude in people's driving. If it's posted at 20, even if [people are driving a few miles above], it's still a safe speed, rather than making it too high and people wanting to go even faster than that.”
“Our methodology is recognizing that law enforcement can't be everywhere, but where they're posted at 20 is a good guideline to keep people driving slower in a neighborhood, and where they're really egregious, police can enforce the posted limit."
“This is something that’s been an issue for a while...but there's been a gap [in the code],” Mayor Ashley French said.
Currently, the idea is to post speed limit signs in the areas that have proven most problematic, with the intention to roll out more signs over the next couple years.
“We also have mimicked what we’ve seen of similar-sized cities,” Smartt said. “They’ve called out their different streets. I must admit, they've done it over a series of ordinances and we’ve chosen to take one pass at this initially and if there’s reason to revisit it in isolated fashion, we could do so at that point in time...that’s another reason why we would pause on putting up signage everywhere and hitting those areas that are higher priority. [We can later follow up] if those speed limits are relevant in other areas [where it might be reasonable for it to be] maybe 25 mph rather than 20.”
There was also an approved application for an Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) for tornado siren replacement, as several of the city’s sirens have extended beyond their lifespan. The city’s regular EMPG grant was not given at the amount requested, but an opportunity was presented to request the amount that was the shortfall.
As a 50-50 share, federal funds would pay off 50% and the city would have to come up with the remainder, or about $25,000. While that wouldn't fall within the current fiscal years, the turnaround timetable on approval of the grant is anticipated to be relatively short. Smartt said it should be expected to hear something back in August, with the awarding of the funds taking place around October.