It's a slow budget year, with stagnant commercial property rates, but one of the big budget items is starting to face a backlash from Alexandria’s first responders.
The new push in this year’s city budget is $1.5 million for public safety recruitment and retention. City Manager Mark Jinks said how the money will be allocated is yet to be determined but that it won't be an across-the-board pay raise. Representatives of city’s police and firefighters say it's not enough: Alexandria is continuing to lag behind its competitors in public safety personnel pay.
The $1.5 million is spread across the city’s police, sheriff’s office, and fire department. The budget item is a mix of targeted pay increases and other retention and recruitment focused measures.
Craig Fifer, director of the Office of Communications and Public Information, said the city has not yet seen recruitment and retention issues, but that the pay increase is a proactive measure to prevent it.
“We brought our compensation up from the low end of the regional spectrum, but now other competing employers have done the same and we’re falling behind again,” said Fifer. “We can’t afford an across-the-board pay increase, nor is it a sustainable approach to just keep increasing pay. The $1.5 million set aside in the city manager’s proposed budget is to fund targeted, tactical approaches to make improvements.”
Fifer said examples of these improvements might be differential for night shifts or non-compensation ideas like expanded career options.
“Our goal is to incorporate employee feedback to apply creative approaches that will prevent us from losing ground again,” said Fifer.
“In our region, there's a big competition between Arlington and Alexandria with Fairfax County,” said Megan Ellzy, president of Alexandria Firefighters Inc., Local 2141. “Fairfax pays at top of the pay scale as compared to anyone in the region. You work the same schedule but have similar benefits. When it comes to hiring, we’re always competing against Fairfax. In our city, philosophy has always been ‘we’re going to be somewhere in the middle.’”
But while that may work for other areas of the budget, Ellzy says aiming for the middle won't work for emergency services. While the city says there haven't been problems with recruitment or retention, Ellzy said fire departments in Alexandria and Arlington are hemorrhaging firefighters. In Alexandria over the last two years, 40 firefighters have left the department. Ellzy said this is 15 percent of the department, the equivalent to an entire shift of firefighters.
“That’s people resigned to go to another department, not retirements or doing a different job,” said Ellzy. “That's 40 people who said ‘I want to work in Fairfax or Prince George’s County.’ That’s a whole shift for us, almost. There’s a lot of services and protection community members aren't getting that they don’t even know they’re not getting because we’re so understaffed. Things get done slower. We’re not as able to do things as efficiently.”
If the pay increase had been dedicated to one branch of emergency services, Ellzy said it would have gotten their pay rates close to their competitions. In Arlington, for instance, some fire personnel could receive an up to 7 percent raise. But spread across several departments including police and sheriff’s office, Ellzy said the raise will do little to stem the problem in Alexandria.
“They proposed $1.5 million over three years. In perspective, we’re 10 to 20 percent down from where we need to be,” said Ellzy.”The $1.5 million over three years is shared between us, police, sheriff. If they said the fire department gets all in one year, that still only gets us to 5 percent of pay raise across the board.
Alexandria’s police have raised similar protests regarding the pay inequity compared to other localities, according to William Oakley, president of the Alexandria Committee of Police Local 5.
“The current situation is, quite frankly when the city manager came out saying there would be a $1.5 million split among three agencies, we had people say they're leaving because it's an insult,” said Oakley. “We are, as Alexandria police, at the very bottom of the pay scale.”
Oakley said one of the common challenges in Alexandria is that the city will pay to recruit and train an officer for their first year, only for the officer to turn around and accept a job at a neighboring jurisdiction. And while Alexandria increases its pay for police, other jurisdictions aren't sitting idle. Arlington announced a 2.5 percent raise for all police ranks below Sergeant, four percent total in an across-the-board employee salary raise. In Fairfax, police will see a 4.5 percent raise. For Oakley, the excuse of a tough budget year is starting to wear thin, taking aim in particular at new King Street beautification measures put forward in the budget.
“Every year we hear is a tough budget year,” said Oakley. “City has money budgeted for flower pots on main street. What are their priorities? Flower pots can be on King Street because there are cops there to make sure they don’t get vandalized. Kids can go to school because cops make sure they’re safe. We’re cops, we’re not going to get rich doing this job, but should get fair pay.”
Oakley said the pay gap is beginning to have an effect on morale. Of 100 officers Oakley says we're surveyed recently about the issue, 35 said they were considering leaving for other jurisdictions.
“We will start to see a younger and younger police force as experienced officers retire out,” said Oakley. “Our younger guys that are just starting families and paying mortgages, they realize they can go to another jurisdiction for $6,000 to $10,000 more. They have to keep hiring people and they're going to lose a lot of experience. It will continually be a young police force without same experience.”