DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — After a challenging year for first responders in Durham, the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police is calling for a pay raise for all city employees this year.

Last year, Durham city employees did not receive a pay raise due to budget constraints because of COVID-19.

As Durham City Council prepares to begin their budget retreat Thursday, the FOP is urging the city to consider giving all city employees a raise this year.

Larry Smith, spokesman for the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police, said during the pandemic many first responders have dealt with increased child care costs and they’ve risked exposure to COVID-19 in the community on a normal basis.

“They do appreciate some of the hazard pay that was given while first responders were out working, but they want to see a more permanent pay increase,” Smith said.

Officials with Durham police say staffing levels are the lowest they have been in awhile.

According to Durham Police, 11 percent of their 556 sworn staffing positions are vacant, which means there are currently 60 vacant sworn officer positions.

“The staffing shortage puts an increased workload on the staff that’s currently here,” Smith said.

Smith added that on average they lose three to five officers a month and while officers leave for different reasons, he said some are going to other departments that pay more.

Durham police pays starting officers $37,029 a year, which is close to what Greensboro ($38,987) and Roxboro ($36,278) police departments start their officers at.

However, Durham’s starting pay is $4,000 less than what Raleigh ($41,000) pays their officers and $11,000 less than what the starting pay for police officers is in Cary ($48,000) and Wake Forest ($48,000).

“This is one thing we feel like the council can have an immediate impact on is keeping Durham police competitive with pay, as far as keeping the salaries up,” Smith said.

He added that if the department can retain more officers, it will help them better investigate crime and hopefully bring the number of shootings down.

“More officers on the street is a deterrent and there might be a quicker response time, which might lead to an immediate apprehension,” Smith said.

CBS 17 reached out to Durham Mayor Steve Schewel who said that it has been a very difficult budget year with COVID-19, but he will do everything he can to make sure city employees get a raise.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton said he would support pay increases for all city employees.

“It’s going to be top of mind for me and I’m certainly going to be asking questions and trying to steer the discussion in the way that yields raises across-the-board for employees,” Middleton said.

Councilman Charlie Reece said he will also be working hard with staff to ensure city employees get a pay raise.

“They certainly deserve raises, there’s no question about that,” Reece said.

Council member Dedreana Freeman said she would also support pay raises for city employees.

“We know the hard work our employees do day in and day out,” Freeman said.

CBS 17 also reached out to Durham police for a comment on the FOP’s call for city employees to receive pay raises, the department sent the following statement:

“Last year was a difficult and challenging year for businesses and police departments nationwide. As the Durham Police Department goes through a variety of changes and challenges, it is particularly important that we identify ways to nurture a positive workforce culture. Despite the current pandemic, we continue to make efforts to recruit a diverse group of officers that represent our community and to focus on strategies for training, community engagement and fostering transparency. I value our officers and their efforts to keep the citizens of Durham safe during these extraneous times and I will be working with the city manager and the city administration throughout this budget cycle.”

Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis