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Letter to the Editor: Budget’s Effect On Officers

To the Editor:

The following letter was addressed to the citizens of Alexandria.

I am Sean McGowan, executive director of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association. I am a retired Alexandria police officer, having served 25 years in the department. While a police officer for Alexandria, I served as the president of the Alexandria Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association.

Members of the Alexandria Chapter have expressed deep concerns over the city manager's proposed changes to the city's health insurance program and the police and fire pension. Both of these changes will have a major impact on the lives of police officers and their families. While our officers have long lagged behind our comparable jurisdictions in salary, they have always been able to point to their benefits as something that helped maintain their compensation level; this is no longer the case.

Our law enforcement professionals understand that the cost of healthcare is rising, not only here in the city, but nationwide. Over the past several years, the city has increased the portion of health insurance premiums that they pay to 20 percent, which has not been easy, but it is understandable given the trends that are outside the city's control. Our Police Department and public safety employee members are greatly concerned about the proposed changes to deductibles and the co-pay system that will not only directly impact family budgets, but may put employees in a situation where they think twice about obtaining medical care. Under the new deductible plan, a family must meet a deductible of $800 each year before benefits apply. As anyone with young children can attest, there are reoccurring trips to doctor's offices, urgent care, and even the emergency room. Before each of these trips, parents will now have to weigh whether or not they will be able to pay the hundreds of dollars in medical bills they are about to incur. This is a choice that no parent should have to make. Dealing with a sick or injured child in the middle of the night is stressful enough without having to factor in the hundreds of dollars of out of pocket costs.

There are also members of our police family who are battling cancer and other chronic diseases. Rest assured, they will reach their yearly deductible. God forbid they face complications in their treatment that results in an inpatient hospitalization; they will also face a $500 co-pay.

The facts of the matter is that police officers and their families will be required to pay $800 more a year for their health insurance on top of any premium increases that may come along. Family financial concerns will now be factored into the decision to obtain medical care. By adopting this proposal, this is the difficult financial road our officers will be on.

On top of the changes to the health insurance program, the city manager's proposed budget also calls for an additional 2 percent annual contribution to the Police & Fire pension plan. It goes without saying that these directly affect officers' gross and take home pay. Our police officers already contribute 8 percent of their salary to the plan and have for nearly 10 years. Now police officers are being asked to pay more and receive the same benefit, all the while being told that the plan is on sound footing. When the plan was enacted in 2004, they were told that the design of the plan allowed the city, rather than the participating police officers, to absorb the ups and downs of the markets and investments, but now they are being told that we must contribute more to compensate for underperforming investments. Something isn't adding up.

I cannot understate the impact of these proposals on police officers and their families. The Alexandria Human Resources Department has provided a calculator for employees to determine the impact on their paychecks. I have had the opportunity to run some figures in the calculator and found them to be troubling. A brand new police officer, with a family, who was hired this past January, is estimated to receive an $11 increase in salary for fiscal year 2014. That's not $11 a week, or $11 a paycheck, that's $11 for the entire year. It gets worse for those who have served their city honorably for years. A police detective, with a wife and child, who has been with the city for nine years, will actually see a $383 deduction in his gross pay. A 16-year veteran police officer suffers a $923 loss. This is real. These are real people who will make less money in the future. It's hard to convince a new, bright young police officer to stay with our department when they know that they will make less money — year after year. Not only will you lose the future of this department when these young officers leave, but they walk out the door with the training and know how we have given them. These police officers then go to work for another jurisdiction. The City of Alexandria has invested thousands of dollars in training in them and has nothing to show for it.

The city manager's budget includes an average 3.1 percent merit increase for employees. For this they are thankful, because without it, the 2 percent pension increase and the rise in insurance premiums would make these losses even greater. Keep in mind that these numbers do not include the $800 deductible that I discussed earlier or the Federal Reserve's 1.5 – 2 percent increase in inflation predicted for 2014. That makes the officer's family budget picture even bleaker.

There is not a police officer in this city who took their job to become rich. All that they ask is that they do not fall further behind, and that their families be taken care of. There are police officers who will see a gross pay deduction of over one thousand dollars if these proposals go into effect — that is no small amount in a police officer's family budget.

Our city law enforcement professionals are public servants and they understand all that goes along with that title. Recent events remind us exactly why they are here and the risks that they undertake each day. They continue to embrace that challenge and are humbled by the trust the public has placed in their hands.

We all know that budgets are about making choices and often those choices are difficult. All I ask is that you consider this city's dedicated police officers and their families as you make your choices and the impact your choices will have on them.

We ask that you contact your Alexandria City Council member and ask them to uphold the promises that they have made to our law enforcement professionals. The Alexandria City Council repeatedly professes that the employees of Alexandria are their most important asset. We ask now that they show their support and place these critical employee issues as priorities when considering the budget.

Thank you for your attention and concern.

Sean McGowan

Executive Director

Virginia Police Benevolent Association