Officer William Taylor argues for higher emergency services pay before City Council.
At the beginning of the special City Council meeting, Mayor Allison Silberberg said when she looked out into the crowd she'd never felt more safe. Nearly every row in the March 12 meeting was packed with first responders, including firefighters and police officers. But for many in attendance, it was another empty platitude of appreciation from a council they say has neglected the city’s emergency personnel.
Several first responders said for years that they’ve heard the same thing from the city; that it’s a tough budget year. It’s a frustrating response, but one that’s still true in 2018. After raising property taxes in 2016 and 2017, the City Manager Mark Jinks put forward a budget without a tax rate increase but still fully funded the School Board’s budget request for the first time in recent city history. It was a more modest budget request than in years past, the result of a new joint working group, and one that School Board members had expressed reservations about for not being ambitious enough. Still, aside from first responders, the most common comment made at the public hearing was support from parents and community members for the budget’s funding of the School Board’s budget request.
The tension among the city’s emergency personnel has been building for years, with a few appearing over the years to plead the case for higher pay, but the March 12 was an unusually strong show of force and unity across the city’s emergency response departments.The 2018 budget’s largest new investment is in a recruitment and retention item for emergency personnel, $1.5 million spread across Alexandria’s fire department, police department, and sheriff’s office. But with Fairfax and Arlington continuing to increase emergency services pay, those in the affected departments say the increase isn’t nearly enough.
Megan Ellzy, a firefighter in the Alexandria Fire Department, said the city lost someone to D.C. just this week.
“They’re deciding they’re better off going to D.C. and getting the same amount to work less,” said Ellzy. “What we’re doing isn’t working. This year we need $2 million; $1.5 isn’t enough for any of us. We need a five percent pay increase across the board and we need to address the fire and medic pay scales.”
Those in the police and fire departments both said the city has a frustrating pay scale system where new recruits’ and veterans’ pay routinely leapfrog over the others’ in uneven cycles.
“I have no positive reason to give to anyone to start a career here,” said Investigator Diana Barrett from the Southern States Benevolent Police Association. “The city has continued to accept pay leapfrogging between vet officers and junior officers. It has fallen further and further behind other jurisdictions. None of this should be acceptable.”
For Detective William Oakley, the meeting was his announcement that it would be his last year with the Alexandria Police. Oakley said the city’s compensation policy states that it will maintain market competitiveness, but for years the city has remained roughly 6.22 percent behind its regional competitors. Oakley said the city has been losing approximately 2.4 officers per month, and is struggling to find the recruits to replace them.
“After the budget was announced, many put in applications to other jurisdictions,” said Oakley. “If compensation is not brought into compliance, many will leave. They will get ten percent more pay for the same work. It takes 1.5 years to train a new officer…don’t let that investment walk out the door.”
Benny Evans has experience working in the Alexandria Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, and for years has been one of the city’s public faces of its acclaimed community policing program.
“Sometimes the young, new officers, they’re really exhausted trying to work regular shift and coming in the next day to make ends meet,” said Evans. “I find it difficult as a 24-year officer living within city limits, I can only imagine what they’re living through. My son is in the police academy for sheriff’s office. He comes home, says he’s in the academy and other departments are already offering raises and a take-home car.”
Evans says when his son tells him about that, he has a hard time finding a reason to tell his son to stay with Alexandria.
“This city has a great service,” said Evans, “we’re just asking to give us a fair shake.”
The city’s budget process will continue until adoption on May 3. The maximum property tax rate will be set at a March 14 meeting, with work sessions continuing on the budget throughout March and April.