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Raise May Not Be Enough to Keep Officers in Arlington

Public safety officials say they could lose firefighters and police to neighboring jurisdictions.

Although the Arlington County Board approved a 5 percent pay raise this week for public safety employees, it may not be enough for the county to retain and recruit high-caliber officers, police and fire officials said.

In a rare mid-year move, the board transferred $1.5 million from the closeout of its fiscal year 2005 budget to increase the salaries of the county’s sheriff deputies and uniformed fire and police officers.

Even with the raise, Arlington’s public safety officers will continue to earn less than their counterparts in most neighboring jurisdictions. The lower salary has caused a number of young firefighters to leave the department in recent months and stymied the police department’s recruiting efforts, police and fire officers said.

“It’s a good start but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Wayne Vincent, president of the Arlington police beneficiary association. “Where we are right now is not going to work.”

Without additional pay raises next year, the county could face an exodus of young talent who can earn more elsewhere, said Capt. Mike Staples, president of the Arlington professional firefighters and paramedics association.

“This is not a fix,” Staples said. “We definitely haven’t caught up. And recruiting is only going to get worse.”

The annual starting salary for firefighters in Arlington will grow from $35,500 to $37,275. This compares to annual salaries of approximately $43,000 in Fairfax County, $42,000 in Washington, D.C., and more than $38,000 in Alexandria, Loudoun County and Prince William County, said Gary Tobias, recruitment officer for Arlington’s fire department.

The annual starting salary for police officers in Arlington will increase from $38,889 to $40,833. This places it behind Fairfax and Prince George’s counties, but slightly ahead of Montgomery County and Alexandria, though Alexandria is currently negotiating a raise with its police officers, said Capt. Tanya Woodson.

ROUGHLY 8 TO 10 PERCENT of the police force has left during each of the past five years, with many of them citing poor pay as one of the primary reasons, Vincent said. Six firefighters fresh out of recruit school have left the department in the past two months, causing others to work overtime, Staples said.

“The young guys say they don’t want to leave but it’s so much more attractive for them to go other places,” Staples added.

The Arlington police and fire departments are struggling to recruit enough new officers to replenish their work force. It's difficult for the police department to attract recent college graduates when it offers four thousand less per year than Fairfax County does, said Detective Rick Rodriguez, spokesman for the Arlington police department.

Tobias said he dreads attending regional career fairs because he knows the offer he can make to a potential employee pales in comparison to his competitors.

“Recruitment is torture,” Tobias said. “It’s hard to get someone when the guy standing at the booth next to you can offer eight thousand dollars more.”

The department is pursuing an aggressive recruitment drive, which includes developing partnerships with area colleges and high schools, expanding the advertising budget and providing monetary incentives, to counteract the detrimental effect of offering lower salaries, Woodson said.

Because of the rising costs of housing, only 9 percent of Arlington firefighters live in the county. That number would be lower if it were not for the seven firefighters who won affordable units in a one-time housing lottery.

Since public safety workers are leaving Arlington for Loudoun and Prince William counties, where the cost of living is lower, officials say they fear that those residing in outlining counties may soon choose to work there as well.

“Why fight traffic to get to Arlington when you can work where you live and get paid more,” said Fire Department spokesman Thomas Polera.

Encouraging public safety officials to live in Arlington should be a priority of the county board, and the best way to do that is to raise salaries, police and fire officials said. If officers lived in Arlington they would feel more responsible for the communities they serve, Vincent said.

The county also needs to increase the pensions of public safety officials, said Staples, adding that every neighboring jurisdiction has enlarged its pension plan since Arlington last did so.

“The county government has not done a good job of maintaining competitive salaries,” Staples said. “But I’m optimistic they are working toward a systematic fix to get us where we need to be.”