NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Finding a way to stop the Norfolk Police Department from continuing to shrink has quickly become a top priority as the City Council considers next year’s budget.

In a letter to council members earlier this week, City Manager Chip Filer revealed that as of April 5, the force had a vacancy rate of 25.5%, with 193 vacant sworn officer positions for the 755 currently budgeted. It’s a number of vacancies he considers “historically high.”

But the city’s former police chief and the Norfolk Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association consider the department more than 200 officers down, as they stated a city Norfolk’s size needs 776 officers. Filer’s letter confirms that’s the number of officer positions they had budgeted five years ago. At that time, there were only 37 spots vacant.

“The exit has just been massive,” Michael Lynch, president of the Norfolk PBA Chapter, said. “And it just keeps going. Five more people have put in their resignation letters this week.”

Lynch said while department culture and the overall negative sentiments towards police have certainly influenced some departures, the majority are fed up about pay.

Specifically, he said experienced officers aren’t being compensated as they would be in other neighboring cities. He blames much of it on a plan City Council put into place last year, in order to recruit new police officers. Starting pay was increased from $43,500 a year to $50,800. In addition, there’s a $5,000 signing bonus for a five-year commitment to the department.

“When they did that, they took the pay gap and changed it. A senior officer, such as myself, went from $17,000 more than a recruit, to $5,500 more than a recruit,” Lynch said. “My time, my education and my experience on the department is worth more than $5,500. I need that pay gap back. That’s what will make officers happy on the department. You want to stop the bleeding. That’s what needs to happen.”

While more than 300 current sworn officers, including Lynch, have taken the city up on up to $12,000 bonuses for the same five-year commitment, Lynch thinks every officer, with two years of experience and on, needs a $10,000 raise.

On Tuesday during a budget workshop, Filer presented a plan that could get some officers near that amount. On top of a 5% raise for all city employees, he is proposing $2.3 million for a step increase for all sworn public safety employees with six or more years of tenure and then the creation of a new classification category: Master Police Officer (MPO).

“This, this is critical. This really is critical in terms of competitiveness for the Norfolk Police Department,” Filer told council members.

He said both Virginia Beach and Hampton already have the classification and it provides an opportunity for bumps in base pay for officers that don’t make rank.

“Currently, we are very competitive with neighboring jurisdictions when it comes to pay for officers that make rank, but I fear officers with 6-plus years of tenure that can’t become an MPO here fall significantly behind,” Filer wrote.

He told council he asked Interim Chief Mike Goldsmith to develop a MPO plan immediately. He believes those officers holding eight to 15 years of tenure could see a $7,000-$9,000 raise.

Still, Lynch isn’t impressed.

“In the long run, that’s putting a small Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” Lynch said.

He said he is currently working on gathering to support to force City Council to vote on allowing the PBA to collective bargain.

“I am in it for the long hall to fix the problems in the department,” Lynch said.