Southern Shores hears from Library Committee, votes to increase police pay

Published 8:49 am Sunday, October 17, 2021

Two major topics of conversation at the October 5 Southern Shores Town Council meeting were the stated lack of communication between the town-appointed Library Committee and Dare County commissioners and the need to increase police officer salaries to stay competitive.

Michael Fletcher, representing the Library Committee, requested help from the town council to establish a Dare County Library Branch in Legislative District 3, which would serve Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck.

According to Fletcher, the Library Committee, which was established by the town in November 2019, cannot proceed with plans for a new branch without support from the Dare County Library Board, which has been unresponsive and currently has vacancies. “We are at a standstill,” Fletcher said. “We cannot go forward without action from the Library Board.” Fletcher said he attempted to obtain contact information for members of the board but was told the information was private, “which I find odd since it is a public board,” he said.

The Library Committee made a presentation during the public comment portion of the July Dare County Board of Commissioners meeting, but, according to Fletcher, did not receive a response. (During the public comment portion of a meeting, the governing body customarily does not respond to speakers at that time.)

Dare County commissioner Steve House responded to a follow-up request for comment: “There is no lack of communication between the county. This has been going on for two years. We’ve responded each time,” he said. “I’ve talked to two of their members on at least two separate occasions over the phone.”

A time-sensitive issue for the Library Committee is the offer to lease a 2570-square foot portion of a TowneBank-owned building for the library at a price of $1 per year for 10 years. It is located at 6 Juniper Lane in Southern Shores, conveniently located near shopping centers. “The very generous offer is not going to last forever,” Fletcher said. “The argument for having a library in northern Dare County is a strong one. We have strong public support. The only thing lacking is political support. We need help from the county to get this moving forward.”

“Libraries are about much more than just lending books – they are a cultural hub,” he continued. A survey of Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck residents reported that 80% of responders said they were in favor of a northern library branch, and 75% would use the library more if it were located in Southern Shores. The current KDH location is 17 miles from north Duck, and it was stated it can take up to an hour and a half of travel time during peak season.

But, according to House, the county is looking at the request on a broader scale. “Basically, the way we’re seeing it, is we have a library in all three of the districts – Manteo, KDH and one on Hatteras Island. If we have a library in each town, there are additional costs to run that. It would be somewhere between $150,000-160,000 a year [per branch]. The precedence would be set. If Wanchese, East Lake, Kitty Hawk, if they wanted a library, the precedence would be set and we’d have to put one in. That would be well over a million dollars,” he said.

Members of the Southern Shores Library Committee said there are grants available to reduce county expenses. Said another member of the Library Committee: “A library is a public forum. It’s no longer just a book exchange, it is much more and it would enrich the quality of life of many people in Southern Shores.”

Responding to the Library Committee’s frustration over the reported communication issues, council member Jim Conners replied: “You guys deserve an answer from the county, yea or nay… As an official committee of this town, to get no response, just be blown off completely by the county is something that kind of galls me.”

Fletcher responded that while he understands that the Library Committee is small, “I do expect transparency and access [from the county]. It’s still an official committee.”

According to House, the county is focusing time and resources elsewhere: “Libraries are being used less and less because of the access to the internet. I think we have more pressing issues in the county – affordable housing and lack of transportation.”

Regardless of government support, Fletcher is determined to have a library. He mentioned other possibilities like a library housed in someone’s garage, with the hopes that the county may at some point incorporate it.

After staff reports at the Southern Shores meeting, council moved on to a discussion about street improvements following an SEPI Engineering Pavement Conditions Study & Capital Improvement Plan, agreeing to spend $4,000 for an analysis of a combination approach to the two options the report gave. This combined option would allow for $800,000 in road improvements, but, according to the agenda summary, “If the Town committed $1 million in yearly funding, approximately $200,000 would be available for construction or could be carried forward in a Capital Reserve Fund.” The council approved a motion for $4,000 for the analysis.

The next topic of discussion was about increasing salaries for police officers in order to recruit and maintain good talent and stay competitive in the market.

Other nearby towns have also been reevaluating police department salaries to attract qualified candidates. Town manager Cliff Ogburn recommended increasing the starting police officer salary by $3,000 to $47,354 as well as increasing the starting salary for sergeants from $53,912 to $60,000. “A lot of this is about retention – it’s getting more and more difficult to hire police officers. This is a nationwide issue and departments are having to get creative,” he said. He proposed an increase effective November 1, which would add $36,943 to the budget to finish out the fiscal year and add $55,514 annually.

“We don’t need to be the highest paid but we just need to be competitive and years ago we were and we lost that edge,” said Police Chief David Cole.  “I want to be competitive so that we can retain the good high-quality caliber of officers that we currently have.”

Southern Shores is struggling to fill a position in the police department. Said Chief Cole, “I’ve been in this profession for 37 years, over 25 as a chief, and two months ago was the first time I’d ever had somebody turn down a job as a police officer . . . we couldn’t even come close [to being financially competitive].”

Ogburn suggested a separate pay scale for the police department. The police chief and deputy chief would remain with the other town employees, but the police officers, the corporal and the sergeant would be moved to an entirely separate scale. According to town staff, a separate pay scale would allow the town to react to the market more readily and make salary adjustments without impacting jobs classifications in the other grades.

Council member Matt Neal made a motion to approve a separate pay scale for law enforcement officers and simultaneously approve a budget amendment to implement the pay scale increases.

In other meeting news, Teresa Osborne, from Dowdy & Osborne, presented the findings from the 57-page 2020-21 annual audit. The town received the best possible opinion from the auditor. “The town ended the year in a very strong financial position,” Osborne said.

Ogburn reported on $100,000 savings for beach nourishment over five years based on bids that have come in and the town approved a town code amendment related to combustible materials, requested so that Kitty Hawk Elementary could have a bonfire at the upcoming school carnival. The amendment adds bonfires as allowable under the supervision of the fire department or fire marshal.

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