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Public Safety Officers Receive Pay Raise

County Board allocates nearly $7 million to boost salaries to levels offered by Alexandria and Fairfax County.

As part of its fiscal year 2007 budget the County Board agreed to a significant increase in pay for public safety personnel, to help stem the loss of young officers to neighboring jurisdictions and to improve the county’s recruitment efforts.

Arlington’s sheriff deputies and uniformed fire and police officers will receive between a 5 and 20 percent pay raise, depending on rank. This is on top of a 5 percent salary increase they received in December.

The move means that the county will now offer salaries commensurate to what officers in Alexandria and Fairfax receive.

BOARD MEMBERS feared that due to an upsurge in competition from outer suburbs and impending retirements, the county would be unable to fill its essential public safety positions unless they granted the additional raise.

"We don’t do ourselves any favors by lagging behind Alexandria and Fairfax," County Board member Barbara Favola said during a budget work session last week. "We don’t want to be put in a position where we don’t have the best and brightest to choose from."

County Manager Ron Carlee called the lack of competitive pay for public safety employees the "most pressing issue" Arlington faces today.

Police, fire and sheriff officials lauded the board for making public safety pay a top priority in a year when many residents were pressing for a large cut in the real estate tax rate and a more constrained budget.

"We really faced a tremendous challenge over the past three years with this hot job market and competition for law enforcement jobs in the region," Police Chief Doug Scott said. "This will go a long way to putting us in the most competitive position."

The starting salary for fire fighters in Arlington was 10 percent less than what Fairfax and Alexandria offered, and both counties paid their new police officers 5 percent more than Arlington did.

Arlington’s police and fire departments have struggled recently to recruit enough new officers to replenish its work force.

"With the competitive situation in the region, Arlington faced the possibility of not being able to attract high-quality employees," Fire Chief Jim Schwartz said. "Once you loose that, it’s not something you can turn back on in a short period of time."

The battle for prospective employees is only going to heat up in the coming years. Growth in Loudoun and Prince William counties means that both jurisdictions are aggressively courting police and fire officials, and are willing to pay top dollar.

THE FIVE major jurisdictions in the region — not including the District of Columbia or the federal law enforcement agencies — are planning on adding a total of 218 new firefighter positions and 208 police personnel in the coming year.

At the same time, Arlington has 18 vacancies in the fire department, 12 in the police force and 17 in the sheriff’s office.

"Everybody else raised the bidding war," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said. "But we can’t just sit back and ignore that if we want to maintain the quality we expect."

The county has seen an exodus of young talent recently, as the police force has lost between 8 and 10 percent of its employees over the past five years, said Wayne Vincent, president of the Arlington police beneficiary association.

Many of those are leaving to work in Loudoun and Prince William counties, where the cost of living is much lower and officers can afford to buy a home.

"Why would a young person travel through a number of jurisdictions that offer better pay and job opportunities to get to Arlington?" said Schwartz.

A looming concern is the generational shift that is just getting underway in the fire, police and sheriff departments. Over the next three years, 21 percent of police and 16 percent of fire employees will be eligible for retirement, adding even greater pressure on the county to hire new officers.

Besides the increase in pay, the board also agreed to change the career ladder in the fire department. In 1996 the structure was flattened, curtailing the department’s ability to assign proper job responsibilities. Carlee, the county manager, called the old ladder "unsuccessful."

Promotional rules for the police department and sheriff’s office will also be adjusted so that the step in pay grade will be equivalent to years of service.

"This will provide us with the tools we have needed for many years to have a fully-staffed police department," Vincent said.