At last week’s FY2018 budget work session, City Council members discussed allocating resources to make Alexandria a “safe, secure, and just community.”
This focus includes public safety functions like fire, police, sheriff, courts, etc. which accounts for about 20 percent of the proposed operating budget and 5 percent of the proposed 10-year Capital Improvement Program.
Discussion focused on the budget’s proposed incentive pay scheme to retain “dual role providers,” or dually certified firefighters-medics.
Under the “single role model,” only firefighter-EMTs crewed fire engines and only medics crewed ambulances. The first unit on scene could not always fully address the situation at hand. So in 2014 the fire department started shifting to the “dual role model.” Every fire engine and ambulance crew will include a firefighter-medic, so it can immediately respond to any situation.
The fire department now has 19 firefighter-medics, but jurisdictions compete fiercely for dual-role providers. In the past 18 months, 11 relatively new single-role providers left Alexandria for greener pastures. In the past year, six dual-role providers left. “[T]he turnover … makes it extremely difficult to push forward with the initiative to get the department up” to its staffing target, said Fire Chief Robert Dubé.
It’s “primarily the money,” said Dubé. Alexandria’s firefighter-medics make $57,100-$96,300, which is below average for Northern Virginia jurisdictions. For comparison, Fairfax County offers $72,800-$101,400. Other jurisdictions give bonuses of $3,000-$10,000. Several also offer 42-hour workweeks, compared to Alexandria’s 56-hour workweek, as well as shorter commutes.
Alexandria’s proposed incentive scheme would provide dual-role providers a $5,000 bump in annual salary and a one-time $5,000 bonus. “This [proposal] here is going to stabilize us, I’m certain. [It will] stop some of the bleeding and allow us to get back on track,” said Dubé.
“It does seem like we could set up some kind of progressive incentive package … where duration is what provides financial incentive for folks,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
Councilman Paul Smedberg lamented that larger jurisdictions can always outspend Alexandria. “Theoretically we’re never going to be able to win that game. How do we look at it longer term? I think [that] is the key for us, potentially,” he said.
Councilman Willie Bailey, himself a firefighter, suggested incentives other than just pay. “It could be something as small as the career ladder — classes, different things like that,” he said.
Police also face turnover and understaffing. “That’s almost the nature of the beast in public safety. There’s always going to be a vacancy rate,” said Police Chief Mike Brown. “If you can get somewhere close to the authorized strength you’re in really good shape.”
At the moment, the police department fares better than the fire department, having recently accepted two police officers transferring from other jurisdictions. “It’s not going in the other direction. That’s not to say it won’t start. … [I]t could be a heartbeat away,” in part because young hires tend to be more transient, said Brown. As it is, the department “has been losing 2-3 police officers each month due to attrition,” according to a presentation slide.
The department is implementing several recommendations from a report issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. One recommendation led to adding a shift to the patrol schedule, resulting in several benefits. Officers now work 3.5 fewer hours per week, reducing departmental overtime costs by $300,000 per year. “[W]e’re seeing more patrol officers out on patrol because we’re not overlapping at odd hours and odd intervals,” said Brown. He also hopes that shorter shifts will improve “morale” by reducing “fatigue.”
The city will also address attrition by over-hiring new officers in FY2018 and subsequent years.
Alexandria is home to the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center. The NVJDC holds youth offenders from Alexandria, Arlington County, and Falls Church awaiting disposition or transfer, or serving short sentences.
The proposed budget includes $452,000 for “the unfunded federal mandate for the Prison Rape Elimination Act,” as well as for “lost federal revenue received by NVJDC,” according to the city budget document. “The funding has been put in contingent reserves pending” clarifications about NVJDC’s budget.
Council members also discussed NVJDC’s longer-range prospects, including potentially its closure. Detention centers statewide house only 44 percent of their capacity, said Michael Mackey of Alexandria’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Service Unit.
“It’s incredibly low utilization. That utilization could clearly be absorbed by other capacity in the region,” said Wilson. “I feel like we need to have this conversation at some point soon with our counterparts in other jurisdictions … and figure out where we’re going to go. … I don’t know what we need to do. Obviously we could leave the money in contingent reserves and that’ll force the conversation.” NVJDC’s closure would save city dollars and free up valuable land.
“What’s in the best interest of the children? …That’s the biggest question,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg.
“[T]he connection the youth who is incarcerated has with their family during their incarceration is a major factor in how well they do,” said Mackey. “Obviously right now the youth are in Alexandria, [the family] can fairly easily … go visit. If there’s a change in the area … that could potentially pose an issue … That certainly has to be a part of that conversation…”
Earlier this year the city merged its non-emergency customer service — also known as “Call.Click.Connect” — with its 9-1-1 emergency call center, located at the police department. This is the “[f]irst step towards the creation of a ‘3-1-1’ non-emergency call number,” according to a presentation slide.
“Recall that two thirds of DEC’s calls … are not public safety related,” said City Manager Mark Jinks, referring to the Department of Emergency Communications. “And so in effect we [had] two places in the city that [were] getting non-emergency calls. And cities that have gone to 3-1-1 basically have created a single organization and … a single physical space because there’s so much synergy between what those two do.”
“There’s a couple things that DEC can offer to support [non-emergency staff],” said DEC’s Renee Gordon. “One, we have … a training facility for them. We can put them on our same phone system. Therefore we don’t have to purchase another phone system. … The Call.Click.Connect system is at end of life right now … We’ll be able to record their calls and do quality assurance with them as well.”
Silberberg lamented the resultant closure of the Customer Connection Center at city hall.
With the elimination of a deputy sheriff position, the sheriff’s office will lose direct access to several federal databases. But there are “various access points to these types of systems,” said Brown. For example, the police department has access to a few through its participation in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. “So we just would do it through that as opposed to having direct access.”
Due to the reduction, the city will also lose representation on the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force. Council requested a budget memo detailing the ramifications of this loss.
Residents can find budget documents, videos, and calendars at www.alexandriava.gov/budget. Participate by emailing City Council directly via https://request.alexandriava.gov/CCC.